On the day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, my fellow students Darpan Patel CC ’14 and Eric Lee CC ’14, along with myself, established the “Caped Columbians—Organizing Sandy Relief!” Facebook group (whose naming I had no part in, by the way). Soon after, the group’s membership rose to what is now just shy of 2,000 and has since served as the organizational hub for innumerable volunteer trips throughout the city, providing an open-access Google Doc with information on ways and places they can help, which others join by looking on the group’s wall. Inevitably, thanks to the efforts that went into this, plenty of Columbians were able to get involved in a way they might not have otherwise been for the next few weeks. As the initial enthusiasm for volunteer work begins to die down, it might be useful to take stock of what all of this volunteering meant for us as Columbians. It is my humble opinion, that we as a Columbia community should use this experience as motivation to better solidify our bonds with the greater community of New York City.
On my first volunteer trip, I used the Caped Columbians page to gather about 10 other students to go to an evacuation shelter on 84th Street. We really didn’t do much, but when we left, the director thanked us for coming and asked if we had either come as part of some organization or if we needed to volunteer for a class. When we told her that we were nothing more than a group of students who wanted to help, she gratefully told us that we represented Columbia well.
While I fully appreciate her gratitude, I also find it slightly amusing and ironic that we had represented Columbia well. This is because in part my friends and I created the Caped Columbians out of a certain dissatisfaction and frustration at the Columbia administration’s decision to resume classes on the Wednesday following the hurricane—not because we didn’t want to go to class, but because we wanted to help people. Why exactly were we resuming classes so quickly? Yes, our education was important, but at the same time wasn’t it strange to be going to class when lower Manhattan was flooded and people had become homeless overnight or lost their power? I’m sure I can speak for many when I say that the morning after Sandy, sitting in the comfort of my dorm room and browsing online at pictures of the destruction, I felt a responsibility and calling to go help. Precisely because I was less affected, I felt I owed my time and resources to those who needed it. Yet, because of my academic commitments, I couldn’t devote myself to volunteering as fully as I wanted at a time of special crisis and urgency.
In a Spectator article covering the post-Sandy relief efforts (“After Sandy: Facebook coordinates efforts like supplies drive,” Nov. 8), Darpan explained that all of the enthusiasm for volunteering after Sandy showed us “a side of our community which we rarely see in a physical sense,” specifically, a public display of how truly selfless and compassionate our community can be. This is something we rarely see as organically as we did in the days immediately after Sandy, in the sense that people really took it upon themselves to organize volunteer efforts. When the administration prioritizes the resumption of classes over helping the rest of New York City, its home, recover from a hurricane, we can’t help but see it as a message to both Columbians and those outside our gates that our greatest priority is always ourselves, even when others are suffering. There was a general email sent from Dean Shollenberger that listed volunteer opportunities for those interested, but at the same time, we weren’t given the ability to capitalize on those opportunities because we had resumed classes. I think it’s important to ask whether or not this message is really the one we want to be sending about ourselves.
As we continue to clean up from Sandy, we should remember that our volunteer work in the city is important because it sends its own message. It reminds us that being a part of New York City is an integral part of our holistic Columbia experience, both inside and outside of the classroom. Thus, we owe it to both ourselves and the city to give back when needed. Furthermore, our physical presence out there tells others outside Columbia that they can depend on us in the real world. Volunteering in the city builds the experience and social consciousness we need to be reliable and survive beyond the ivory tower.
The author is a Columbia College junior concentrating in sociology.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, email@example.com.