On the second week of classes, I walked into Dodge Fitness Center for the first time ever—as a senior. When I shared this fun fact with a friend, she laughed and replied in jest, “Seriously? Do you actually go here?”
Obviously, it was a joke. I’m clearly an enrolled student (insert Rhea Sen reference here) or else I wouldn’t even be able to write this column. And rationally, it makes perfect sense that I hadn’t ever set foot in Dodge—I’m not an athlete, I’m barely athletic, and thanks to a series of unforeseen circumstances, I wasn’t able to take a gym class until the fall of my senior year.
So, why so serious?
My heightened sensitivity to this kind of comment is perhaps because I hear it more often than the average student. I’m part of a very particular Columbia minority: As a junior, I forfeited my guaranteed housing and moved off campus.
Columbia is one of the only New York City schools where this decision would be shocking. At NYU, 50 percent of all undergraduate students live off campus, and Fordham University is not far behind at 44.5 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report. At Columbia, however, it’s less than 6 percent. To be clear, this isn’t a critique of that low percentage—it’s a marvel that an urban school is able to make such a commitment. Guaranteed housing is something that Columbia students should not take for granted. The University provides lower rent rates and free services that you’re unlikely to get from the average walk-up building’s landlord.
The high undergraduate housing statistic speaks to a greater objective: a cohesive campus and student body. While NYU is made of disparate, different-looking buildings spread across downtown, Columbia has borders. Between Morningside and Riverside Park, north of West 110th Street and south of West 122nd Street, Columbia students are met with uninterrupted familiarity. Though Tom’s Restaurant brings in “Seinfeld” fans, walking on campus can feel like a comforting “Cheers” rerun: “Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.”
I’m not saying anything that earth-shattering here. Just take a look at the banner on the residential life tab on the admissions page:
“When you’re completely engrossed in conversation with your new floormates as you look out over the city lit up by a million lights … When you’re having hot chocolate with suitemates while you help them pick out Halloween costumes… at times like these you will suddenly realize that Columbia is more home than home base and the people around you are more family than just friends.”
But where does that leave those of us that opt out of on-campus housing? Are we missing a crucial piece of the Columbia experience?
My living situation does, in many ways, divorce me from my peers. I don’t live with Columbia undergraduates—or, indeed, undergraduates. Instead of rolling out of bed and walking a block to class, I have both a bus and a subway ride in my daily commute.
It can get really annoying. I sometimes wonder if my double bed and lack of RA supervision outweigh the benefit of the accessibility my peers share. Even with the lure of an adorable French bulldog, getting friends over to the East Side can feel like pulling teeth. (Last year’s Varsity Show song about Columbia students’ reluctance to cross 110th? TOO REAL.) I can’t pop over to my friends’ suites at all hours of the night just to hang out—and as Spectator’s editorial board argued Monday, losing swipe access can make you feel a bit like an outsider at your own school.
But on the other hand, I would hope that being a part of this community has a hell of a lot more to it than where you live. Each year at Spectator, the staff gives you 116 examples of the typical Columbia experience. Of the 10 or so housing-related traditions, I knocked off most in my two years of dorm life. I’ve gotten sexiled and locked out and caught someone moving my laundry. I don’t know that I’ll ever recover from calling CAVA upon finding a random guy passed out in my communal bathroom without pants.
So maybe I can stop feeling so damn insecure about “missing out” on the camaraderie of an East Campus townhouse and remember that there are a million other ways to define and quantify my eight semesters here.
Everyone from your parents to your favorite professor to your RA will tell you that college is all about choices. But implicit in that statement is that you’re ultimately eliminating other potential experiences. Just as there are 300 students who chose to live off campus each year, a different 300 students bike, hike, raft, and bond on a COÖP trip each fall.
I can’t speak for every undergrad “commuter,” nor would I want to. We all had our own personal reasons for moving out, whether they were financial, social, or psychological. But our collective absence doesn’t undermine the vibrancy and health of the campus community. When I step onto campus each morning, I feel the same sensation as any other student—I feel at home.
Abby Mitchell is a Columbia College senior majoring in comparative literature and society. She is a former arts and entertainment editor for Spectator. Life's a Mitch runs alternate Tuesdays.
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