This article is part of a special issue looking back at the 2012-13 academic year. Read the rest of the issue here.
Rhea Sen started off her August at Columbia as any new student would: going on bus tours around the city, taking photos with new acquaintances, discussing the perks and quirks of each residence hall. The only problem? Rhea Sen doesn’t go to Columbia.
Her name, it would turn out, wasn’t even Rhea Sen. Birva Patel, 26, made national headlines when she was arrested on the Morningside Heights campus for criminal trespass in September. She was brought to administrators’ attention only after her suspicious behavior during the two weeks of orientation programs, during which she aggressively befriended first-years and misled them on the subway, but her arrest brought an end to at least a nine-month run posing as a Columbia student.
Rebecca Smith, CC ’13 and an International Student Orientation Program leader, first noticed the woman on Aug. 24. She was eating cereal alone in John Jay Dining Hall and gave the name Rhea Sen.
She told Smith that she was registered for the Columbia Outdoor Orientation Program but had missed the program’s departure. Although she lived in Philadelphia, she said, she was born in India, so Smith offered to try to register her for ISOP.
“That’s really nice, but I don’t want to cause any trouble,” Smith recalled her saying. The quiet girl gave Smith her phone number anyway, and Smith was given administrative approval to register her if she could get her UNI.
Smith called the number, but no one ever answered. Smith said she didn’t see her again for three days, but in the meantime, Patel—posing as Rhea—went on a city tour and attended an Afropunk festival in Brooklyn, other ISOP leaders said.
On her way to the party at the Bronx Zoo that capped off orientation week, Cami Quarta, CC ’16, and a friend wound up on the subway with Patel. Even though Quarta had been told to take the train to 180th Street, Patel showed her a text message she claimed to be from her orientation leader instructing her to get off at an earlier stop and take a bus. The two heeded Patel’s advice, winding up far from their intended destination. A helpful police officer steered the three of them back on the subway.
Quarta said Patel went with a friend to a Literature Humanities class during the first week of school, but when the preceptor arrived, Patel left the room and waited in the hallway until the class was over. On Sept. 5, she sent Quarta two Facebook messages littered with misspellings and dozens of English and Hindi curses.
Her time on campus was not confined to the first few weeks of the fall semester. The day after Spectator broke the news of her first arrest, six students reported seeing her at Columbia as early as December 2011, going by her real name and claiming to be a junior studying engineering.
“She just had this weird vibe,” said Anna Prouty, BC ’14, who met Patel at Uni Café in April. “I love awkward people—I’m kind of awkward—but it wasn’t like that. It was, ‘Hi, can I hang out with you?’”
Others who interacted with Patel gave similar characterizations of her behavior: She approached them and all but demanded to be friends, and she repeatedly lied about what she was studying and what school she was in. Three students received rambling, sometimes profanity-laced Facebook messages from her. Others saw her on the subway, often lingering on the platform as trains came and went.
Patel has appeared in court several times since her arrests, each hearing adjourned for another few months without much progress.
One student, who asked not to be named because Patel has her phone number, said she met Patel in March 2012, also at Uni Café. Noticing Patel’s strong Indian accent and wanting to help the seemingly lonely woman make friends, the student—a member of the Hindu Students Organization—invited her to Chamak, a Pakistani event taking place that evening. Patel and the student exchanged phone numbers, and Patel promised to come to Chamak before backing out.
Patel also promised to go to Tamasha, a South Asian cultural showcase, and she texted the student that she was in Roone Arledge Auditorium during the event. But she later texted that she had lied and “had to go out.” The student grew frustrated that Patel never seemed to follow through despite saying that she wanted to meet more people.
Janelle Bracken, Business ’13, met Patel in February 2012 in the lobby of Uris Hall. Patel told Bracken that she was an undergraduate student but had attended Business School happy hours on Thursdays. Bracken, relaying the encounter to her B-School friends, learned that they had also seen Patel at happy hours, and that Patel had asked them to log her into Uris computers. Patel Facebook-friended Bracken and asked if she wanted to go clubbing, and when Bracken declined, Patel vehemently denied attending the happy hours and cursed Bracken out.
Students who interacted with Patel said that while she seemed to know enough details about Columbia to make it plausible that she was a student, she sometimes blanked on basic facts.
“I said I went to Barnard, and she went, ‘What’s that?’” Prouty said.
Patel told the student in the Hindu Students Organization that she was a junior in Columbia College studying biomedical engineering—a major offered only at the School of Engineering and Applied Science. When Tanay Doctor, SEAS ’15, asked Patel if she liked working with Andrew Laine, the chair of the department, “she seemed to have no idea who he was,” Doctor said in an email.
Students who met her had different reactions to Patel’s lies. Some felt threatened, while others wrote them off as the behavior of an awkward student.
The HSO student grew suspicious of Patel when she gave her email address as email@example.com, considering Patel had said she went to CC. The student became even more suspicious when an email she sent to that address bounced.
“I felt unsafe. I felt like she was psychotic,” the student said.
For others, Patel was an oddity, no more.
“She just seemed weird,” Prouty said. “She didn’t seem dangerous.”