Memory is a funny thing. More than once I’ve recounted a particularly funny incident from childhood in which, naturally, I am the protagonist, only to have my mother or father point out that the story I am “remembering” actually took place years before my birth and had my sister in its starring role. My siblings are all in their thirties, and I’ve often wondered how to properly relate to the lives they led before I was born. Falsely inserting myself into that chapter of their lives was, as a child, one of the ways I coped with not sharing their past. While the question of how we engage with institutional memory—whether in a collective as insular and tight-knit as a family, or as broad and loosely tied as a university—may have no easy answers, we must search for them all the same.
Last January, tragedy befell our community when a bus carrying Columbia and Barnard students on a Global Brigades service mission flipped onto its side in Honduras. Three lives were lost: Daniella Moffson, a junior at Barnard, Olivia Erhardt, a Columbia College sophomore, and Abigail Flanagan, a General Studies student and nurse practitioner at the Columbia University Medical Center. May each of their memories be blessed.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to know Olivia or Abigail, whose inspiring lives and selfless acts I learned about at the vigil we held as the spring semester began. Daniella, however, was a lifelong friend, someone I’d known and loved since the age of two. She was vivacious, vibrant, and made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the room. I knew that what I and everyone else who knew her was feeling, parallel to what Olivia’s and Abigail’s friends and family were feeling, was uniquely distressing. For the average student on campus, who might have had no connection to anyone on that bus, last semester could be like any other. But these deaths were shocking enough, traumatic enough, and communal enough that everyone knew about them. Because even though not every individual was mourning, the collective was.
The first-years that arrived here this September were not part of that specific collective. It happens every year—when the class of 2016 graduated and the class of 2020 arrived, we formed a new collective. And this raises an important question: What will happen when the last students who overlapped with Daniella, Olivia, and Abigail graduate and leave this institution? What do we owe to their memories?
In trying to think critically about this question, I realized my own complicity in eschewing institutional memory. My years at Columbia have been punctuated by activism. I’ve thought often and deeply about Emma Sulkowicz carrying around her mattress, launching a national conversation on sexual assault; about the students who spent the final days of last semester occupying Low Library, demanding that the University do more for climate justice; about Aryeh’s Invest in Peace campaign and the strength in responding to calls for Intifada; about the powers at Spectator who made the decision to stop printing the paper daily and who radically changed the structure of the editorial board; about the students who protested Orgo Night and argued for its demise; about an ugly sculpture that somehow inspired more of a reaction than all of the former examples combined.
All of these memories are my own—these are events that took place during my time here. But how much do I know about the 1968 protests, the Manhattan Project, or the plethora of other important Columbia moments with less name recognition?
For four years, we’re immersed in this enclave, this eden of education that spans just a few square blocks. But what happens when we leave?
One answer came last February from Mikhail Klimentov, CC ’16 in the form of “An Admin’s Guide to Inefficiency.” Everything progresses here at a snail’s pace, he argued, because the administration waits out activists, and every few years, each new cohort recreates itself in the image of its predecessors. Klimentov highlights the stasis of sexual assault reform, an initiative that students have apparently been focused on since the early ’90s, but his assessment is sadly universal. We could be doing more, better, and faster, if only we would more thoroughly immerse ourselves in Columbia’s past.
I don’t have any conclusive answers, but I think we need to be asking better questions. What do we owe to those that came before us? How do we preserve and honor the memories and legacies of those who have lost their lives whilst here? What does it mean to be part of this community? How can we utilize institutional memory to better serve ourselves and this campus?
Our time here may be ephemeral, but our status as Columbia affiliates is forever. We exist here in some strange purgatory, constantly navigating between transience and permanence. Those occasions that defined the experience of one year should be honored and remembered by all subsequent years. To ignore institutional memory is to get dangerously lost in a maze of our own self absorption—repeating the mistakes of the past, dishonoring the memories and legacies of our predecessors, and, as a result, shortchanging the future.
Daniella J. Greenbaum is a Barnard College senior majoring in English literature. She tweets @dgreenbaum. Agree To Disagree runs alternate Mondays.
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