As August quickly approaches, I share the dread that the other 2,000-something Columbia incoming first-years must feel: Course registration is almost here. The magic of post-graduation summer dissolves. Do I go pre-med, or do I major in political science? How do I leave the option to do music open? What about 4+1 programs?
Desperate for a clear path, I attend several of Barnard’s Launch Week meetings, taking notes on separate index cards for different majors. Each Zoom meeting lasts an hour, but I leave half an hour early to attend all the ones I want to see. My energy dwindles with each meeting. None of these majors seem like a sure path, and making a single choice would make the possibility of failure real.
“You can’t just ‘explore’ pre-med,” my cousin, a college sophomore, advises me. “There are way too many prerequisites for you not to be all in.”
So, I go all in (decidedly pre-med with a mix of political science and drop of engineering), plugging my notes from my index cards into an Excel spreadsheet. Pretty soon, the resolve to plug in my notes melts away.
“Honestly, looking up videos on how to maintain consistent study habits helped me manage all the classes,” my cousin says.
So, I search “How to do well at Columbia.” I scroll past videos that scream “I got a 4.0 but I still make YouTube videos for a living” and land on a Columbia University Archives page. It reads, “Be the first find the owl in the Alma Mater statue, and you’ll be valedictorian of your class.” I take a new index card and record the location of the owl, at the foot of Alma Mater.
I also find that leaving burnt offerings at the foot of Alma Mater over the course of finals week will improve your grades. I scribble the tidbit on the same index card.
Soon enough, I’m down a Google rabbit hole, scanning an article about how the marching band supposedly lights a candle and prays to the archangel Michael before each football game; if the candle remains lit, the team will win, and if it doesn’t, the team will lose.
Moreover, legend has it that the 1979 cross country team advised the 2004 team via dreams on how to take back the Ivy League Heptagonal Cross Country Championship title after losing for 25 years: Each team member must touch the paw of the lion statue near Dodge Fitness Center every time they pass it.
But the myths don’t stop there. The grounds of Columbia were used for an asylum before the University moved, so tunnels under the University were supposedly built for the transportation of inmates. Rumor has it that the tunnels were closed because of leftover radiation from the Manhattan Project—or perhaps because they were used by students to escape the New York Police Department and Columbia Public Safety during the 1968 protests.
One day, a student entered the tunnels after they were closed and reported to the NYPD that he saw bones in the tunnels. Apparently, the student overheard two administrators talking about Columbia’s lower college ranking being linked to the alumni’s poor donation rates and, as the story goes, Columbia was undertaking an “extermination plan” for alumni who were “less than generous.” The tunnels served as an underground cemetery for the underperforming alumni.
I close my laptop and glance at the index card in front of me. I scribble a final note, reminding myself what happens to poor alumni—poor alumni who didn’t find the owl first, didn’t sacrifice to Alma Mater, forgot to pray before their football games, and never received spiritual intervention from the 1979 cross country team.
In most of Columbia’s campus myths, superstitious qualities are leveraged because of the fear of failure. Students treat Alma Mater as an idol to achieve a better GPA or pray to Abrahamic angels to win a football game.
As per Simon Bronner, an American studies and folklore professor at Penn State Harrisburg, urban legends are manifestations of student anxiety and can serve as an outlet for peers to implicitly connect without being very vulnerable. By performing ceremonial rites—such as the ones I accidentally discovered—students feel more secure in not failing and can express their uncertainty.
However, according to the myths, Columbia takes things a step further. Instead of relying on the occult, the institution kills alumni who do not donate enough, their low giving rates serving as an indication of failure. Columbia students are forced to cling to superstition because they have no control over whether they fail or not. Even after students graduate from Columbia, they still live in fear of failure, as shown by the “extermination plan.” All of the legends reflect a culture obsessed with not failing, perpetuated by Columbia, and meant to last for life.
As I register for and eventually join my classes this fall, perhaps some of these college myths are worth keeping in mind, and even worth entertaining, every time I think about rearranging my schedule, pass Alma Mater, or look behind me for a stray alumni bone.
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