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Senior profile: Lulu Mickelson, BC

  • Ethan Wu for Spectator
    NEIGHBOR | Lulu Mickelson has spent her past four years finding ways to engage local communities, starting the Manhattanville Community Arts and Employment Initiative.

This senior profile is part of Spectator’s 2014 commencement special issue. Check out the 17 other senior profiles, the class day ceremony recaps, and a timeline of the biggest events of the last four years.

Aside from the occasional trek to Jin Ramen, life occurs strictly south of 120th Street for most students at Columbia. Lulu Mickelson, BC ’14, is an exception.  

An urban studies major, Mickelson has spent the past four years advocating for civic engagement through community service.

She said it all started when she participated in the Columbia Urban Experience pre-orientation program before her first year at Barnard. Through CUE, Mickelson worked on a service project in West Harlem, which served as her initial window into the neighborhood.

“My time in CUE was a really important developmental step that translated to the rest of my time here,” Mickelson said. “I began to think about the surrounding community and the implications of being a student here.”

“I’m so glad I had an introduction to college that was more than just the NSOP revelry,” she said.  

Inspired by her experiences in CUE, Mickelson joined several community service organizations during her first year. But she soon found that none of the programs offered what she wanted to do.

“I really quickly became frustrated with the top-down service opportunities on campus,” Mickelson said. “It felt like we were volunteering a few hours and then calling it a day.”

So at the end of her first year, Mickelson co-founded Barnard and Columbia’s chapter of Design for America.

“I wanted to create an alternative to the traditional community service avenues on campus,” Mickelson said. “Something that allowed for more creativity so that we could actually engage with the complex nature of our relationship with Harlem.”

One of the DFA project teams focused on Manhattanville—an area that would soon play a big role in Mickelson’s work at Columbia. 

“I started to think about the design process as a better way to understand these complex issues,” Mickelson said. “This inspired me to work within the University administration to make an impact.”

After receiving a George Van Amson Service Fellowship from Community Impact, Mickelson spent the past two years working with the nonprofit Creative Art Works and Columbia’s Office of Government and Community Affairs to launch the Manhattanville Community Arts and Employment Initiative, which aims to better inform neighborhood residents about Columbia’s impact on the area.

“Making change from within an institution like Columbia is messy and compromised,” Mickelson said. “But as students, we are in a unique position to impact University policy.” 

She said that her extracurricular efforts connected well with what she learned while in class.

“The urban studies program has given me an academic context for exploring so many of the issues that I’ve been working on outside the classroom,” Mickelson said.

One class she took, The Making of the Modern American Landscape, taught by professor Elizabeth Blackmar, asked students to go outside and take pictures of things being discussed in class.

“That experience really forces you to think about what you’re learning and seek it out in the world around you,” Mickelson said. “It’s about taking the city and neighborhood as a way to apply your education in a really practical way.”

She said that engaging with the community is about more than just service opportunities—it’s also about building relationships that go beyond tutoring or cleaning up a park once a week.

“People who live in the surrounding area will give you insights that no one on campus can provide,” Mickelson said. “And when you invest more in the community, it gives you a sense of place that is really important in figuring out what it means to be a Columbia student.” 

“On a less enlightened note, Harlem also has some really great food options that a lot of students don’t take advantage of,” Mickelson added.

As a program leader for CUE, Mickelson said she tries to inspire a sense of civic responsibility in new students.

“I want people to see themselves as stakeholders in the University and neighborhood at large,” Mickelson said. “Without that awareness ,it’s hard to even expect students to take the time to go above 120th Street.”

channing.prend@columbiaspectator.com  |  @ChanningPrend

This senior profile is part of Spectator’s 2014 commencement special issue. Check out the 17 other senior profiles, the class day ceremony recaps, and a timeline of the biggest events of the last four years.

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