Editors’ Note: This is the first of a two-part series on special interest communities at Columbia.
I sat down to write this article intending to begin with an anecdote from students who lived in Special Interest Housing buildings during its first few years of existence at Columbia. I imagined maybe being able to describe group dinners in the Japanese House, or a funny anecdote about the treacherous task of trying to carry a piano into an East Campus townhouse to fill the space in Music House.
So I’m surprised to find that none of the early Special Interest Housing residents I spoke to remembered much, if anything at all, about their time in Special Interest Housing. Evidently, the living system in its early years left little of an impression on students’ memories of their undergraduate years.
Originally dubbed “Special Interest Housing,” the program was envisioned by administrators as way for students to congregate around shared passions in a way that contributed to the greater success of undergraduate life by organizing and hosting unique and interesting events. In reality, the five inaugural special interest houses—Russian House, French House, Japanese House, Music House, and Art House—ended up falling short of that intention, being more about the “housing” than the “special interest” for the students involved. It was more of a way to get into an EC suite as a sophomore than a way to bond over the Japanese language or the art of sculpting.
In 2005, under new leadership, the name of the program was changed to “Special Interest Communities.” Looking back, it becomes clear that this was an inflection point in the history of the program––what changed was more than just the name, but also the underlying conception of what the spaces should function as.
The first group of special interest houses was approved by Roger Lehecka, Columbia College dean of students in the early ’80s. I sat down to talk with him in Hamilton last fall, and we talked for more than half an hour. We discussed in great detail life at Columbia, his love for the Columbia community, running in Riverside Park, and moving from a small town to New York City. However, we only spoke of Special Interest Housing for a few minutes—he, too, couldn’t remember many details, beyond the initial motivation for their creation: It was a way for a group of students to have space to band together and benefit the larger campus.
What may have been a well-intentioned program at its inception quickly devolved into what Isabel Parlett, a member of the original French House, calls a “failed experiment” that left some participants ready to leave by the end of the year and quickly forget their time in Special Interest Houses.
Parlett, who graduated from Columbia College in 1987, can vaguely remember only two members of French House, with whom she lived for a year: one student “from Vietnam” another with whom she stayed in contact “through Glee Club.”
She remembers French House hosting a single crepe brunch. When it was initially granted a space in East Campus, the group had planned many more events and projects: “Monthly lectures in French concerning non-academic subjects, accompanied by wine and cheese refreshments. Monthly croissant and crepe brunches and a tentative wine tasting event are other projects. The suite will compile French periodicals for those interested.” All of these fell through, either due to lack of administrative support or lack of direction in the program.
Three years later, Karen Harris, who graduated from Columbia College in 1989, spent her sophomore year in Russian House. She, like Parlett, remembers only one significant event being organized. A group of students and professionals from the USSR “traveling under the auspices of the Soviet youth tour group Sputnik” gathered in Wallach Lounge to discuss politics, world peace, and the New York City subway with Columbia students. According to a Spectator recap of the event, entitled “Soviets sally to Columbia for taste of American life,” one student from Kiev remarked: “We have so many weapons we could destroy each other with 50 times over—what’s the point?”
While this event struck me as a pretty big deal, Harris recalls very little of the encounter. She also tells me that her special interest house did not host many other events, despite having planned them. “We were supposed to do, like, once a month some sort of cultural event, but it wasn’t really run that way.” She does recall eating pierogies made by the native speakers in the suite. “We would cook together––I don’t think it really went beyond cooking.”
Harris, like Parlett, struggles to remember more than two people who lived in the house with her. But even if she doesn’t remember many details, she does credit Russian House as being critical to her acceptance into a study abroad program. “I think the goal was really just language acquisition,” she explains.
The 2005 adjustment in nomenclature was also the moment when Residential Life aimed to transform special interest houses from places where the goal was to develop skills with other people into communities focused on fostering deeper engagement with peers through a shared identity.
The anecdotes that I was searching for when I first began this article finally appeared in the conversations I had with current residents. Bronte Dalton, a sophomore in Columbia College and current member of GreenBorough, the SIC focused on environmental sustainability, tells me that “it really met and surpassed my expectations.” She gushes with love and appreciation for the community she’s found through the program. “People who I really didn’t know at the beginning of the year [I] now consider to be some of my best friends.”
When I speak to Darleny Cepin, the associate director of Residential Life who spearheaded the name change from “Special Interest Housing” to “Special Interest Communities” in 2005, her passion about the role of SICs on campus is apparent in everything from the tone of her voice to her unremitting smile. “I think Columbia can always benefit from having a strong community,” she explains, “The students bring their own ideas, their own sense of what matters, and what many want to learn more about.”
Simultaneously with the renaming of the program in 2005, Residential Life instituted several other major changes to the SIC program. Cepin tells me that they assigned a faculty advisor to each SIC to help with community advising, as well as a program coordinator to oversee the SIC application process, ensuring fairness to all applicants.
Parlett reflects that one of the biggest flaws in the system when she lived in French House was a lack of exactly this kind of guidance to refocus the community once it started to fall apart. “I think we could have used more administrative support from someone who knew something about community building because in a way I think we’re just kind of thrown into it,” she explains.
Today, in stark contrast, Cepin views the SIC program as the locus of “one of the most beautiful healthy relationships that students and administrators hold at Columbia in terms of dual relationship of support.” In fact, one of the official goals of the current SIC Program, as stated on its website, is to “promote interaction with faculty and administrators in the Columbia community.”
This new mantra may be one of the reasons that the number of SICs at Columbia has almost doubled since 2005. Cepin tells me that there were four when she began her work with the program at Columbia in 2003—only a fraction of the fourteen that exist now. Originally, special interest houses existed in East Campus, Hartley, Wallach and River Hall. Today, SICs are located in East Campus, River Hall, Wallach, three brownstones, and three apartments on 114th Street.
With guidance from administrators and a real passion for community-building, many current SICs have been more successful than the founding five at organizing events. “Every Sunday we have a house dinner. It’s my favorite meal of the week,” Dalton tells me, excitedly, of her time at GreenBorough. On Sundays, each pair of roommates will take a turn cooking dinner for the entire house. With the doors of all the suites open, the smell of various dishes can be smelled wafting from room to room as shouts of “Do you have cinnamon?” echo throughout the hallways.
GreenBorough also holds meetings in their basement for various sustainability groups on campus, and Dalton expresses the community’s desire to organize some sort of gathering with all of Columbia’s environmental activism groups together. And these events, true to the program’s initial aim, have had a positive impact on a wider Columbia community.
Whether they’re called “special interest houses” or “special interest communities,” these spaces are time capsules of what we wish to highlight as important issues or themes of our generations. During the Cold War, there was a Russian House. Today, SICs like Casa Latina, Manhattan House, Pan-African House, and Q House are spaces for students to celebrate their identities and embrace the diversity on campus.
When I talk with Cepin, she discusses her dreams of bringing back some of the founders of special interest communities. She imagines what they’d feel seeing what the SICs have finally transformed into: “Oh my god, that was my dream and look at it now.”