Cover by Betel Tadesse
Editor-in-Chief | Sona Wink, BC ’25
Managing Editor| Anouk Jouffret, BC ’24
Deputy Editor | Victor Omojola, CC ’24
Publisher | Jazmyn Wang, CC ’25
Illustrations Editor | Oonagh Mockler, BC ’25
Layout Editor | Siri Storstein, CC ’26
Literary Editors | Miska Lewis, BC ’24 and Zibia Bardin, BC ’25
Digital Editor | Jorja Garcia, CC ’26
Henry Astor, CC ’24
Cole Cahill, CC ’23
Andrea Contreras, CC ’24
Sylvie Epstein, CC‘23
Dominy Gallo, CC ’23
Kelsey Kitzke, BC ’23
Will Lyman, CC ’23
Benjamine Mo, CC ‘23
Eliza Rudalevige, CC’23
Muni Suleiman, CC ’24
Sagar Castleman, CC ’26
Iris Chen, CC ’24
Margaret Connor, BC ’23
Schuyler Daffey, CC ’26
Stephen Dames, CC ’25
Adrienne deFaria, CC ’26
Amogh Dimri, CC ’24
Jake Goidell, CC '24
Sadia Haque, BC ’23
Madison Hu, GS ’24
Josh Kazali, CC ’25
Shreya Khullar, CC '26
Molly Leahy, BC ’24
Molly Murch, BC ’24
Briani Netzahuatl, CC ’23
Leah Overstreet, CC ’24
Anna Patchefsky, CC ’25
Sofia Pirri, CC ’24
Claire Schweitzer, CC ’24
Dominic Wiharso, CC ’25
Tara Zia, CC ’26
Tarini Krishna, BC ’23
Emma Chen, CC ’26
Lolo Dederer, CC ’24
Cadence Gonzales, BC ’26
Maca Hepp, CC ’24
Mac Jackson, CC ’24
Alexandra Lopez-Carretero, CC ’25
Vanessa Mendoza, CC ’23
Samia Menon, SEAS ’23
Nayeon Park, CC ’26
Amelie Scheil, BC ’25
Betel Tadesse, CC ’25
Phoebe Wagoner, CC ’25
Hart Hallos, CC ’23
Madeleine Hermann, BC ’23
Table of Contents
Playing With Fire by Shreya Khullar
Through the Looking Glass by Tara Zia
Features & Essays
Confessions of a Short-Term Sugar Baby by Eliza Burns
Kabul, Kyiv, Columbia by Jake Goidell
Pursuing the Personal by Will Lyman
Centerfold by Cadence Gonzales
Measure for Measure
24/7, 4.5 Stars by Stephen Dames
Tanea Lunsford Lynx by Muni Suleiman
Eliza Shapiro by Sylvie Epstein
By the Seniors
By Sona Wink
Letter From the Editor
In 1923, a Columbia College sophomore strode across the quad. Lionel Trilling had just finished his finals, and despite having performed poorly, he was jubilant. Something about the springtime, he felt, made the usually drab campus come alive, blooming with a new kind of “sweetness” that usually lies dormant throughout the year. “The university on a fine day would be touched by some grace of mystery and melancholy,” he wrote.
Trilling’s sophomore musing is from an unfinished draft of a memoir in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. He wrote it the year before he died, in 1975.
Later on in the memoirs, Trilling writes of his childhood love of reading. As a teenager, reading the classics made him feel connected to a world beyond himself. A sophmore myself, it is easy to relate—even a hundred years later—to the experience he describes. I sorted through his papers at RBML as a research assistant this semester, and by the end of the gig I felt like I had come to know a man who had been dead for 50 years. His writing continues to preserve an element of his essence, which lives on in the memories of those who read it.
Our May issue is the last of the spring semester, and thus the last issue that the graduating staff members of The Blue and White will grace with their writing. In a series of vignettes, our seniors capture snapshots of their time on the Columbia campus. These memories will live on in print, circulating on campus for years to come, as those seniors move onto the adult world.
Former Blue and White Editor-in-Chief Conor Skelding, CC ’14, tragically passed away on April 21 at the age of 31. In honor of Conor’s memory, we have printed some of his letters as EIC that his former peers on the magazine selected as most emblematic of the thoughtful, dedicated approach that he took to this publication and Columbia at large. While words mean little amidst such horrible, unexpected loss, we hope to preserve a piece of the light that Conor brought to the community by printing his words again, ten years later.
I understand the “melancholy” that Trilling says the Columbia campus is marked by in the springtime. The explosions of cherry blossoms and virgin leaves are unspeakably beautiful and also painfully fleeting. The glory of the season on this campus thus serves to emphasize how simultaneously wonderful and brief our undergraduate experiences are—blink, and the cherry blossoms are gone; blink again, and you’re suddenly halfway through your time here.
Two more springtimes will come and go, and then I will leave this campus. Yet these words will remain here, left wallowing under a circular lounge chair in Lerner or stationed in a chance dormitory lounge, waiting to be picked up by a freshman a decade from now. If writing preserves a piece of you in a moment of time, that writing must be read in order for your ideas to live on. When I sit in the quad, with foliage in full bloom, I can picture a young Trilling strutting by 1923. As I write this letter in Avery, I can picture a young Conor sitting next to me, doing the same, in 2013. Never having met either, it is through their writing that they live on in my imagination.
Cover by Betel Tadesse
Sona Wink, Editor-in-Chief: Candles shaped like food. Kacy & Clayton, Marlon Williams, “Devil’s Daughter.” Raccoons in Riverside.
Anouk Jouffret, Managing Editor: Amoeba Music’s “What’s In My Bag?” series (youtube). David Johansen’s Mansion of Fun (SiriusXM).
Victor Omojola, Deputy Editor: Sophia Azeb, “It Turns Out We Were Not All Pan-African During the World Cup.” The scene in The Incredibles when Dash realizes he is HIM.
Jazmyn Wang, Publisher: Jamila Woods, “SULA (Paperback).” Hal’s Grapefruit Seltzer.
Jorja Garcia, Digital Editor: Dinos at the AMNH. Andes Mint Chocolates. Gabriel Garcia Marquez Cien Años de Soledad. Pádriag Ó Tuama, Poetry Unbound.
Oonagh Mockler, Illustrations Editor: Imogen Heap, “Hide and Seek.” Angel Olsen, MY WOMAN.
Siri Storstein, Layout Editor: Wayne Shorter, “Ponta de Areia.” Kissing. Hex & Company Boardgame Cafe.
Zibia Bardin, Literary Editor: Le Rire de la Méduse, Helène Cisoux. Nostalgia for the first day of college. Spring rain. Kissing the homies goodnight.
Henry Astor, Senior Editor: Beau is Afraid (2023). Masayoshi Takanaka, “Seven Goblins.” The George Santos fit. Crocs.
Andrea Contreras, Senior Editor: Hiatus Kaiyote, “Get Sun.” Being loud and outside. Lowball summer wardrobe eBay bid.
Sylvie Epstein, Senior Editor: Grace Ives, “Lullaby.” Attending the thesis presentations of everyone you’ve ever met. The Dunkin’ Rewards App.
Dominy Gallo, Senior Editor: Regina Spektor, “Folding Chair.” Joan Didion, The White Album (again). Medjool Dates with almond butter in the middle of the night.
Kelsey Kitzke, Senior Editor: Lavender G&Ts. Blondshell, “Kiss City.” Not knowing what to do with myself.
Will Lyman, Senior Editor: Stevie Wonder, “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Canadian tuxedos. Chocolate ice cream in a purple bowl.
Eliza Rudalevige, Senior Editor: Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Big Thief, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You. Fronting. Cacao nibs.
Muni Suleiman, Senior Editor: Lorde, “Big Star.” Sudan Archives, Natural Brown Prom Queen. The last two pages of Toni Morrison’s Jazz.
Stephen Dames, Staff Writer: Rachel Cusk, Outline. Ordinary Unhappiness (podcast). Habibi Funk Records. Joining a softball league.
Adrienne de Faria, Staff Writer: Soup. Terekke, Improvisational Loops. Flowers wrapped in newspaper with a blue bow.
Jake Goidell, Staff Writer: Richard Brautigan, The Tokyo–Montana Express. Delicioso Coco Helado carts.
Sadia Haque, Staff Writer: Halsey, Badlands. Tangerine popsicles. Riding the 2 train at 3am.
Josh Kazali, Staff Writer: Stefan Zweig, Chess Story. Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Tarini Krishna, Staff Writer: Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century at The Whitney. Jam bars.
Molly Leahy, Staff Writer: Jeanette Winterson, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Inflatable couches. Fresh pineapple.
Briani Netzahuatl, Staff Writer: 2000s Rock en Español. cafe east froyo with mango and strawberry.
Anna Patchefsky, Staff Writer: Mt. Joy, “Bathroom Light.”
Maca Hepp, Staff Illustrator: Rereading your favorite childhood book. half•alive, “arrow.”
Madeleine Hermann, Staff Illustrator: Grimes, Art Angels. Getting drunk at your visual arts thesis exhibition. Iced spiced chai lattes from Wu and Nuss.
Playing with Fire
Pale Fire Theater plays with audience-actor intimacy.
By Shreya Khullar
Pale Fire Theatre was founded in 2019 by Henry Alper, NYU ’25, and Shayan Hooshmand, CC ’23. Debuting in fall 2022 with a production of Waiting for Godot at the West End Theatre, the company seeks to provide a vehicle through which students can perform free from the constraints of university policy. The group is unaffiliated with Columbia, a unique position that comes with both freedoms and restrictions: on one hand, directors and performers can go beyond the conventional bounds of university-regulated theater; on the other, the group is cut off from most sources of school funding.
This is Our Youth, running from April 16-23, is a key example of the creative freedoms afforded outside of Columbia. The play is set in New York during March 1982 and required extensive research. “I knew early on that we wanted to have the sound collages to use clippings from commercials that aired during that time,” director Sophie Craig, CC ’23, recalled. She even spent a week reading Ronald Reagan’s diary for preparation. Craig’s commitment to historical accuracy set the groundwork for the challenging themes of the play. Characters struggle with death, addiction, and abuse, as well as issues examined in many classic bildungsromans like growing up, finding love, and figuring out what it means to feel as though your childhood is unfinished.
Despite its unassuming setting, the production had audience members (including myself) dissolving into laughter, and, at a few points, verging on tears. People were seated just a few inches from performers, creating a profound sense of intimacy between the actors and the audience. I felt not as though I was a voyeur of some distant aesthetic experience, but like I was holding the hand of Warren, the protagonist, through his struggles in this coming of age story.
“My dream was that it would feel like we were all crammed into this horrible studio apartment together,” Craig explained. She wanted the performance to be “an immersive, almost dreamlike experience.” Among the myriad of notes I took, I distinctly remember writing “audience across is making faces” and “audience is in it.” My friend pointed out a man whose jaw hung open throughout the two minute make-out scene between Warren and his love interest, Jessica. When asked what Craig wants the audience to take away from the play, she answered, “The fragility of relationships, especially when you're young.”
To Hooshmand, the Artistic Director for Pale Fire Theater and the lead actor for This is Our Youth, this was exactly the kind of environment he imagined performing for. Elaborating on his vision for the audience-actor dynamic, he passionately described how he wanted audience members to writhe in their seats if they felt inclined to do so. Watching a play and only being allowed to politely clap at socially appropriate times was, in his opinion, boring, and nowhere close to his ambition of hyper-saturated experimentation.
With a small cast and crew, the production was a labor of love. Hooshmand’s hope is that the connection between the cast can transcend the boundaries of the stage, creating a reflexivity between audience and actor. Pale Fire Theater doesn’t act in isolation: We must feel the highs and lows with them.
Sixty streets down from Columbia’s campus, a new world of student theater is blooming. On an April evening, a friend and I took the 1 train to Midtown to see a production of This is Our Youth by Kenneth Lonergan from Pale Fire Theater, an independent theater company run by Columbia and NYU students and alumni. The evening was warm and muggy as winter finally gave way to spring, and, as art enthusiasts, we were itching to see a show before getting bogged down by final exams. When we entered the American Theatre for Actors, we were met with a small, studio-style room with reclining chairs for audience members, a single bed as the central set-piece, and multicolored Christmas lights illuminating the stage. It was grimy. It was glorious.
Illustration by Jorja Garcia
Through the Looking Glass
Finding escape in Chelsea’s eclectic gallery scene.
By Tara Zia
“It smells of cheap champagne … and sweat,” remarks a woman, laughing, as she fans herself with a delicately tattooed hand. I concur as an expert myself on the hallmark scents of the first-year college experience. Only this time, far from the bowels of a dorm or frat party, I am standing in the Jack Shainman Gallery on a Thursday evening gallery crawl in Chelsea.
Thursday night is Opening Night for most Chelsea art galleries. Each week, a selection of these galleries open their doors from 6 to 8 p.m. to celebrate the launch of their new shows. It has become something of a tradition for me to get slightly (or egregiously) overdressed and bring a friend for an evening of art, refreshments, and people-watching.
Illustration by Betel Tadesse
On my most recent trip, I began with a show called Myself When I Am Real, which exhibited the works of portraitist Barkley L. Hendricks. Hendricks is known for his vibrant, nuanced portrayals of the Black experience, and this particular exhibit features his private studio collection of photographs. One series depicts a set of televisions projecting iconic moments in American media from beauty pageants to Louis Armstrong’s performances. Others show nude mirror portraits which my gallery-hopping companion Yam Pothikamjorn, CC ’26, described as “not sexualized but instead quite thoughtful.”
I chat with an employee managing the exhibit at the Shainman Gallery who shares that she is a Columbia alum. She differentiates daytime viewers from the gallery-hopping crowd of “regulars,” saying that gallery hoppers are “more inquisitive and stay in the space for longer.”
This crowd of regulars encompasses quite a range, including everyone from denim-wearing friend groups to a smaller set of linen-clad art curators who are whisked off to liaise with the gallery owners. For Liam Downey, CC ’26, gallery-hopping has evolved “from a networking event to a fun way to start the weekend. You get to meet a lot of really interesting people. It’s a way to relax while also being introduced to the field I’m interested in.”
A refreshing sense of authenticity pervades the diverse set of characters. The crowd takes their art seriously, but not necessarily themselves. One viewer remarks that one of the artists is “a very close friend” before clarifying, “or rather I think she’s a close friend.” On an elevator ride down, an old woman remarks that she was “dancing on the roof” to a young couple who manage a White Claw, champagne glass, and water bottle between them.
For all its eccentricities, gallery-hopping sometimes requires a more solemn disposition. In a Gladstone Gallery exhibit, I wander around black-and-white portraits and long-form essays about community healthcare workers in Baltimore, all curated by artist LaToya Ruby Frazier. The room is contemplative—and uncharacteristically quiet.
I recognize faces as I travel between galleries. “I’ve been coming here for six years,” explains Antonio Rosales, one of the well-dressed 20-somethings I’ve observed in multiple exhibits. “I work in an art gallery during the day, so this is my after hours break.” A sort of escapism.
Rosales’ story offers a helpful insight for Columbia students looking to find respite from the school’s competitive and fast-paced environment. Through gallery-hopping, I myself have found the importance of looking beyond the traditional college experience and embracing what the city has to offer. As Downey explains, “these galleries are showing the premier artists of our time and they are free, just a subway ride away.”
The last stop of the evening is Mirror Milk, an exhibit at Satchel Projects inspired by a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Pieces include intricately designed mirrors and distorted, surrealist portrayals of the breaking of reality. In the gallery, I spot a girl who looks around 10, leaning against the wall reading. I fondly recall my childhood form of escapism: bringing a book to any function and immersing myself in a fictional world. Having spent the last two hours wandering around art exhibitions and talking to strangers, I can’t help but feel a tendril of my childhood excitement resurface. But I realize that this time, starry-eyed and sweaty, I’m no longer peering through the looking glass.
By Kelsey Kitzke
I first met Joey Recker, CC ’23, in the Barnard anthropology class The Politics of Care, where we spent a semester discussing what it means to care for individuals and collectives within systems often designed for the opposite. In that time, I listened to him share consistently interesting and nuanced reflections on his experiences working as an EMT on Columbia’s EMS corps. “I feel like, a lot of times, I’m doing fieldwork in my head, for a paper that I’m never going to write.” (His complete thoughts on EMT work, he assures me, would make for an entirely separate piece—or an entire anthropological project.) But a mutual friend on CUEMS tells me he does the job because he is a deeply invested patient advocate—his patient notes are often many times longer than they need to be.
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
Recker began EMS work after spending his Covid gap year working as a medical scribe. He saw CUEMS, specifically, as a way to translate knowledge of a particular environment, Columbia, into a mechanism for community care. As a pre-med student, he wants to go into the underserved field of family medicine where primary care providers build strong and long-lasting relationships with their patients—care on a very different timeline compared to the fast-paced nature of EMS work.
But perhaps the most interesting way Recker talks about care and community is through music: making it, performing it, and listening to it. When he arrived at Columbia as a first-year, he found the right people to start making music with; in the spring of 2019, they recorded an album. As a first-year, Recker also began his involvement in SNOCK after he started attending shows, then performing in them. He remembers deciding to join after playing a show and just sticking around until the night ended: “I was having so much fun and I just helped everyone pack up … and then we went out to a bar together afterward to hang out. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the shit that I had been doing all throughout high school and it's happening here.’”
Recker spent his high school years enmeshed in the DIY punk scene in his hometown of Omaha. He talks about weekends spent getting beat up in mosh pits in friends’ basements, a collective of people unified around leftist ideas about white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. At the same time, Recker spent his weekdays as a boarding student at an all-boys Catholic school within a monastery. As a school run by Benedictines, a religious order marked by communal living and ascetic compromise, Recker describes the school in very different terms from the punk scene—“traditional,” “conservative,” and “strict”—yet he expressed similar appreciation for the ways the school created “a true sense of community.” Every Monday night, students would voluntarily gather for Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” an evening of meditation on a scripture verse, prayer, and structured silence. “After it would happen, there would always be just, like, a real love.”
As a queer person, Recker reflects on how the kinds of masculinity produced in an all-boys boarding school environment can be both intensely homosocial while being pointedly homophobic; a complex mix of unifying and alienating. Communal showering became a case study in what Recker describes as “a ritualized queer sexuality” that was simultaneously harmful to queer people at the school. Yet, he emphasizes the genuine love that existed there: “It’s not a totalizing story of misery.”
This sharp contrast in the content of his adolescent social rituals—weekdays in a rigid Catholic schooling environment; weekends at scrappy punk shows—led him toward studying anthropology when he arrived at Columbia. “What the hell is going on here?” he asks himself while reflecting on each experience. The mechanisms of social cohesion, rituals, behaviors, and belief systems were all so different, but both ending in some ultimate form of togetherness.
Having also been raised Catholic and now finding strange comfort in rituals I once found inane, I spent this year’s Lent bookmarked with Mass alongside Recker. Ash Wednesday was at Corpus Christi on 121st, which he found stuffy and stiff. He recommends the Jazz Mass at Ascension on 107th instead, which is where we found ourselves with a gaggle of other Catholic-raised anthropology majors for Palm Sunday. Alongside a bassist, we receive palms, attempt to fold them into crosses (Recker’s a pro), listen to the homily, receive communion, sing a bit, pray a bit. It is lively to the extent that a Catholic mass can be, but it is warm and inviting. That’s how it should be, I remember him saying, there should be kids running around the aisles.
To run into Recker on campus is to be greeted by a very tall guy with piercings, bleached hair in two braids, and the most sincere smile on his face; and then to watch him greet five others in the exact same way. As someone with a noted affinity for Midwesterns who’ve found themselves on the East Coast, Recker has a Midwestern charm that is marked by an almost radical friendliness—a devotion to treating everyone like a potential lifelong buddy. It is easy to see how that translates into his approach to every space he’s in.
But maybe the thing that impresses me most about Recker is also the simplest: He is always down to linger, for coffee, for lunch, for a chat, long or short—the slow process of social connection in which Recker excels. The undervalued art of just hanging out.
As we talk, I tell him about my particular post-grad headspace and we talk about the ways to go about creating community after college and where to do so. “If I’m going to be in New York, I want to actually be in New York,” he says in reference to avoiding the post-grad Columbia bubble and learning how to be in community somewhere, afresh. “I just want to be around people and have enough money to live.” He speaks excitedly about music as a path there, returning to a familiar space of community-building that he says he plans to make a part of his life for the rest of his life.
After graduation, and in the interim between now and medical school, Recker plans to work at a farmer’s market while continuing as an EMT in the city. That is, in addition to making music as the bassist in his newly-formed hardcore punk band: Suzuki Methyd. He describes the necessity of live music as a kind of communal emotional release: People need to experience joy, pain, anger, and love alongside other people. With Recker, it’s not the grand gestures that make an individual a part of a collective, but the small and continuous acts of care that matter. Showing up, doling out smiles, asking people how they are, meaning it, repeat.
Illustration by Jorja Garcia
By Madison Hu
Pupin 428. 4 p.m. Green chalkboards peek out from behind a large projector screen. Popcorn sits precariously in my lap. My eyeline is focused on the screen in front of me so as to not become disoriented by the surprisingly steep audience chairs. To my left, a can of Coke balances on the thin, dark oak of the armrest. To my right is my friend Maya Castronovo, CC ’23, director, editor, and producer of the short mockumentary What is Weecha, premiering sometime in the next five hours (the 2022 Columbia Undergraduate Film Festival is scheduled to go from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; the film is #17 in the 18 film line up).
The lights dim and the festival screening commences. After the 16th film finishes, the screen fades to black. A beat. Then, that cliché, copyright-free music featured in, like, every investigative documentary begins to play. The dark fades into a beauty shot of Weecha, the big blue DNA sculpture that sat at the base of the grassy steps of Diana during the 2021–2022 school year in all her beautifully vague, unexplained glory.
We then hear an unseen woman’s voice: “I woke up—I remember it was a Thursday morning—I felt so sick to my stomach … ”
In vague prose she continues, “I guess it’s been most shocking discovering that there’s …” A beat (or an ‘investigative pause’ as Castronovo describes it). “... So much more to discover.”
Over the course of the mockumentary, the viewer is presented with hilariously ironic clips of Weecha and the investigation of the investigation behind its presence, a movement sown by the (very real) Instagram account @whatisweecha. The audience finds particular amusement in a photoshopped image of Weecha hidden on the grounds of an old black-and-white photo of Barnard. Fabricated found footage comes off as impressively convincing, complete with heavy breathing, blurry shots, and images of scurrying feet. I catch myself regularly forgetting the irony of the investigation, helmed by the creators of the account, Delaney Wellington, BC ’23, and Epiphany Larmey, BC ’23. The interview with the purported creator of the sculpture, in which he eventually admits he’s “said too much,” has the room laughing, but also wondering if there is any truth to what we are watching. At the end of the documentary, Delaney asserts: “I don’t believe, at the end of the day, it really matters what’s real, versus what’s constructed.”
At the end of the festival, the process of determining awards commences (a Google Form is sent out to vote for our favorite film). Then, all of a sudden, the projector breaks down and goes black. Someone in the audience calls out, “It was Weecha!” and the rest of the crowd laughs. After the points are tallied up, Castronovo’s film is announced as the audience’s favorite of the festival. She descends the steep stairs for her photo op and bouquet of roses, and we finish the night off with a celebratory dinner at Ferris.
Over a mountain of rainbow cookies at Hungarian almost a year later, I ask Castronovo how she remembers the event and how she felt about winning the film festival. She explains that her favorite moment of the night was when the projector momentarily broke down. “That meant people got it—they too were in on the whole Weecha conspiracy. The joke landed, and it stuck. As a filmmaker, it’s rewarding when your message comes across.”
When I ask Castronovo if she considers herself a funny person, she says no, at least not in the way a comedian is. I beg to differ. Castronovo sees the absurdity that exists in the ordinary, and she does well to imbue her filmmaking with this vision.
Another of Castronovo’s films, The Subway Challenge, is more earnest in tone. The project’s original goal was to record her friends attempting to get off at every subway stop in the city, but the venture was cut short by the pandemic. Now, the film exists as a work that considers what it means to accomplish a task. It ends with a piece of wisdom: “If you think too much about finishing something, you often lose sight of why you started it in the first place.”
As Castronovo’s undergraduate career comes to a close, I inquire about her latest film, Eating Chinese. Through cuisine, it tackles white America’s post-colonial notions of the “other” and Chinese-American identity. Though the piece is somewhat satirical, it still remains a departure from much of her other work. Castronovo felt this shift to be a bit anxiety-inducing; she explains that it’s one thing for a joke not to land and another for a piece’s satire to go over a viewer’s head.
Eating Chinese takes two shapes: One features an eerie cooking show, with its performative, racist host offering lines like “Visiting Chinatown is like stepping back in time to a distant and primitive land,” and “Have you always wanted to consume another culture?” over camcorder footage of Chinatown as an exhibit. Other moments are anchored in a suggested reality, signaled by fourth-wall breaks and cuts to a man holding a boom mic.
It’s clear in the way she describes her work—“the punchline,” “the twist,” “the performance”—that Castronovo enjoys playing with what is real, what is not, and the inherent humor that exists along the border between the two. Eating Chinese serves as evidence that even when she is not explicitly working with the comedic form, she doesn’t take herself too seriously.
When I quiz her on her favorite movie, Castronovo takes a beat to gather her thoughts: “As a film major, there’s some internal pressure to pick a movie that’s niche and not too mainstream.” She takes another pause. “It’s Twilight. I like Twilight.” After we both dissolve into giggles of agreement, I ask why. “It’s campy. It’s enjoyable. It has a sense of humor.”
Later Castronovo tells me about a published paper she wrote on the genre of mockumentary. She briefly summarizes her thesis: “Mockumentaries laugh at the very form of documentaries. In that way, truth can sometimes be playful. It can be entertaining to laugh at our own conventions of factual representation.”
We quickly find ourselves consumed in the spiraling debate surrounding what is the truth even anyways, especially in constructed mediums like film, and how documentary is really just as fictional as a traditional narrative piece. Understanding that such conundrums are at the root of Castronovo’s work, I admit to her that I’m afraid it might be impossible to fully encapsulate her persona in writing. If the truth is constructed, how do you even begin to go about reconstructing fact in an honest way, much less a compelling one?
She aptly provides me with advice to quell my anxieties about reassembling her on the page—meta, I know.
“I mean, there is no way. Just try to do something entertaining.”
Confessions of a Short-Term Sugar Baby
An unconventional avenue towards auxiliary income.
By Eliza Burns
I made my Seeking Arrangements profile in a post-drunk fit of existentialism at the Stonewall Inn while the two straight men in the bar stared at my posse from their sticky high-top stools. It was my friend’s idea, prompted by my moaning and groaning about the apparent inability of anyone in New York to offer a livable wage. I selected photos, crafted a bio that was witty yet not threateningly so. Another friend, one with a return offer from Accenture, looked on dubiously.
Seeking Arrangements is a website designed to match sugar daddies and mommies with sugar babies. Recently rebranded to just Seeking, it bills itself as a “luxury dating site for successful and attractive singles.” The disguise is insubstantial; the patrons equally shallow.
In simplest terms, Seeking is a clusterfuck. Laura, a former sugar baby who used the site, referred to it as “a sexual LinkedIn” and to those who frequent it as “the weirdest dudes I have ever interacted with in my life.” Seeking definitely lends itself to a certain kind of person, the kind who needs to hire women to go on dates, the kind who craves power over someone much younger and poorer than them, the kind who hides behind usernames like ArtisticHottie, DapperLegend, and ElitePrince.
Housed on the worst user interface in recent memory, Seeking works like this: There are two categories of membership, “Attractive” and “Successful.” (Because, of course, these traits are mutually exclusive.) Attractive members are typically young women looking to become sugar babies; Successful members are typically older men interested in acquiring one. Sometimes, Successful members are interested in an online-only or platonic relationship, but more often, they are looking for in-person meetings, sexual or at least romantic in nature. In return, Attractive members—sugar babies—receive compensation through one of two structures: pay-per-meet, or PPM, which resembles a kind of freelance escorting, or by allowance. Receiving an allowance, monthly or weekly, usually comes along with a longer-term and sometimes exclusive arrangement. Users can filter profiles by age, gender, ethnicity, body type, hair color, whether they smoke or drink. Successful members are encouraged to include their salary range. Both Attractive and Successful members can view, favorite, and message the other category, although not members of the same category. In my experience, the latter tend to take the initiative and message first. With much persistence.
The morning after I made my profile, when I woke up with last night’s mascara smeared under my eyes, I had dozens of messages. Some were almost comically polite. All were presumptuous. A few, feeling entitled to the body of a woman they would never meet, were aggressively sexual accounts of what exactly they would like to do to me. Most of those came from profiles without any photos; the generic bluish silhouettes that stood in their place took on the ominous aura of an approaching army. When I told one man that I wouldn’t have sex with him after a few days of constant harassment, he told me that I was “whoring myself out” and to “stop kidding myself.”
Because sex work is still illegal in many states and countries, any mention of sugar dating or illumination of what an “arrangement” entails is conspicuously absent from Seeking’s website. Patrons are warned against soliciting sex; officially, the website’s user agreement “prohibits any unlawful use of the site, including escorting, prostitution and human trafficking.” As a result, many of the messages I received were rife with circumlocution and coded language—“mutually beneficial” means “money for your company” and “mentorship” means “intimacy”—or requests for my personal contact information so that they could speak in more candid terms. The man who told me I was whoring myself out was almost refreshingly honest, if not quite correct.
Some of the messages made me concerned for my safety; while my real name appeared nowhere on my profile, my photos can easily be traced back to my personal social media. While I am not naive, I do tend towards carelessness. I know that meeting somebody for a sugar date, especially for the first time, can be extremely dangerous. Even armed with a fake identity and a burner flip phone, Laura found herself in a dangerous situation when her first sugar date roofied her. Luckily, she escaped with the help of a female employee who snuck her out of the club’s back door.
The reason why I created the profile, however, remained. I started seeking an arrangement partially because of a desire to keep up with my wealthier peers. At an elite institution like Columbia, where 13 percent of the student body are one-percenters, it can be easy to feel left out of what are billed to be quintessentially New York experiences because of their price tags. While I am under no illusion that I am underprivileged, I am trying to break into an industry where I’ll be lucky to earn $48,000 as an entry-level employee. Compared to my friends in consulting and finance, not to mention those with family money, it’s easy to feel left behind in a wake of expensive bottles, Ubers, concert tickets, and Moncler puffers.
Whether or not I am justified in seeking a sugar arrangement as a product of the upper middle class is a subjective call. I bet there are better essays out there about it. But the sentiment of not being able to keep up in a monstrously wealthy environment is not unique to me. Jane, a low income student at Columbia moving to the city from a rural area, found her first year at school—the 2020-2021 school year, when Covid restrictions limited on-campus housing to students without suitable learning environments at home—extremely difficult. Adjusting to the New York City cost of living was one obstacle. “I quickly realized that I spent my money a lot faster,” she told me. And when more students began pouring onto campus in the spring of 2021—a significantly wealthier influx—it only exacerbated the problem. “Making a lot of friends that came from those demographics was really hard because they would invite you out to clubs that had higher fees to get in, or they’d ask you to dinners that were more expensive,” Jane said. “I thought that dabbling in the sugar dating scene might get me those experiences.”
Laura told me a similar story. She started sugar dating during her first summer in the city, when she was working a low-paying service job. “Being in the city and being at this school, you’re surrounded by a lot of really wealthy people, and you’re also surrounded by really competitive people … it’s tempting to be surrounded by that kind of wealth if you’ve never had it before.”
Ellie, another Columbia student, cited slightly different motivations. She told me that she didn’t know anybody else who was sugar dating when she started during her sophomore year. “I thought it would be a cool thing to do so that I could say that I had done it, which, looking back, is silly,” she told me. “But I think that’s the way that I approached a lot of my life when I was 18, 19.” She found that it was a good way to make money and to enable her, for example, to try stellar restaurants which she could not have visited otherwise. Still, Ellie largely echoed Laura’s disdain for the men she went on dates with, adding that she spent much of the time “commiserating” with the waitstaff.
Sugar dating is not always centered around a sexual relationship. Laura described the men she went on dates with as sexually pushy, but managed to avoid having sex with any of them. Ellie told me frankly that she didn’t have sex with anyone she wouldn’t have slept with otherwise. Her modus operandi is to “extract a few dinners” before ghosting them. Jane met a man on Seeking who claimed he was just looking for a friend, and saw him for about a month. The money she made lasted through the semester and the summer, a sum she described as “a level of casual, disposable income that I had never had before.” But Jane also admitted that his openness to a non-sexual relationship was an anomaly, and that he eventually indicated an interest in something more, something she was not willing to offer.
I “dated” one man for a few weeks, meeting up only once but staying in touch over text and promising another date, a promise which I inevitably broke. Before our date, he sent me a bottle of YSL perfume which, for better or for worse, has become my signature scent. I wore the perfume the night of our date, a whiff of trepidation on my wrists and in the sweat pooling under my arms. He was a banking executive who sported clothes that fit him awkwardly and an unsuccessful attempt at a combover. He was pretty nice. We ate $300 omakase and drank equally expensive sake out of tiny crystal goblets and I let him put his arm around the back of my chair when we got to a dimly-lit whiskey bar. I thought it was very obvious what we were doing there.
After the whiskey bar, I pretended that I had a dance class early the next morning and he called me an Uber home, one of those giant Black SUVs with tiny Poland Spring bottles sitting neatly in the cupholders like a pair of fabergé eggs. The next day, he sent me a hefty gift card for a hotel spa, which I used in February to get a four hundred dollar facial and float around in a sweet-smelling saltwater pool where they served herbal tea and candied orange peel. I had my taste of luxury, and it was sweet.
What I didn’t account for was the amount of labor that went into mere correspondence with these men. Ellie put it best: “There is so much bullshit to filter through.” Safety measures like fake names, contact information, and sometimes backstories add another, purposefully invisible, layer of effort.
These men are dedicated, at least outwardly, to the idea that we are not engaging in a transactional relationship, that the romance is not manufactured by the cabernet and caviar. Laura recognized a similar performative element to her dates: “He would pay for anything and everything. All I had to do was … pretend to be someone I wasn’t.”
Many of the men who reached out to me on the site said that chemistry was important to them. Of course, this meant that they wanted to make sure that they were attracted to me, and that I could pretend I was attracted to them. This kind of performance, even done over incredible food and drinks, is exhausting.
Compounding this exhaustion is the fact that most of these men are pretty insufferable. While they claim to value discretion, they also think they’re invincible. Jane’s sugar daddy was a doctor who spent half an hour of their first date elaborating on the blatant corruption he observes at his place of work. My date, a high-powered lawyer, showed me confidential work emails. Paired with the innately imbalanced power dynamic that accompanies any sugar relationship, this openness about their work lives results in a volatile propinquity, a sort of mutually assured destruction should one party tattle.
Despite the continued expectation of “the bimbo performance,” as Laura put it, another trend that Ellie and I both noticed was the premium that our dates put on our educational and intellectual capital. Attending an Ivy League university was an attractive trait to the men on Seeking; it allowed them to separate themselves from classist and elitist ideas of what a sugar baby or a sex worker is, to shrink further behind the armor of supposed mentorship. Ellie agreed: “It seems to lend me some sort of credibility … where they think I’m a ‘different kind’ of sugar baby because I’m educated.”
I am not ashamed of being on Seeking, but there exists a real possibility of repercussions due to the stigmatization of sex work and adjacent streams of income. On one hand, Jane told me that she was comfortable sharing this part of her life with fellow low-income students, a few of whom trailed her first date as a safety precaution; on the other, she admitted that she felt others couldn’t understand her motivations. It took me months to find sources for this article, mostly because few people wanted to lay bare this part of their lives. I attach my name to this article with the fear that, even with my abbreviated experience, it will negatively impact my future career.
None of the people I interviewed sugar anymore, and they all stopped for different reasons. Ellie met her current boyfriend on Seeking and no longer goes on dates with other men from the site. Jane cut off communication with her sugar daddy when she returned home for the summer, preemptively avoiding any attempts on his part to push the relationship further. Laura ended things with her more long-term arrangement after a series of altercations during which he refused to defend her to disrespectful friends and publicly fat-shamed her while shopping on Prince Street.
I personally stopped pursuing an arrangement because of concerns of how engaging in sex for money as an inexperienced non-professional would affect my future relationships, whether my finances would become dependent on the whims of another person, about the time it takes to maintain these relationships, and whether I could balance that effort with a full course load, a job, and time spent with people I like a whole lot more.
But what really freaked me out about sugar dating was the way it held up a mirror. My willingness, however brief, to perform for these men revealed a frightening truth about the way that material excess had become central to my happiness. My own frightening flippancy about being disrespected, objectified, potentially kidnapped, trafficked, assaulted—this had very little to do with sugar dating at all and more to do with self-worth. Laura described her own relationship with sugar dating as reactionary, self-destructive, and sensation-seeking behavior stemming from prior negative experiences with men. Her words resonated with me. Some sugar babies, like the three I interviewed, were good at setting boundaries. Others, like me, would probably not be.
Sugar dating makes good money; for many, it makes unprecedented money. Taking safety precautions and having a support system—both things I didn’t do—can make your experience much better. Examining your motivations carefully, dealing patiently and seriously with your base instincts and reservations, knowing that there are consequences to placing power in the hands of men you know will push your limit—these practices are also essential.
But the mental toll of Seeking and the sugar dating that it facilitates is still palpable. Some, like Ellie, find a happy ending. Other former sugar babies make it clear that they do not condone sugar dating; it is not something to be ashamed of, but it should not be approached frivolously either. In another succinct turn of phrase, Laura expressed that sugar dating is not a “fun-giggle-girlboss” endeavor. “You’re not tricking him,” she continued, “he knows exactly why he’s there.”
Illustration by Samia Menon
Kabul, Kyiv, Columbia
Tracing the experiences of displaced scholars at Columbia and threats to academic freedom.
By Jake Goidell
As the Taliban re-seized Afghanistan in August 2021, Professor Ajmal Sabawoon sat on a bus heading towards Kabul International Airport with his wife and four sons. The trip, which typically takes half an hour, instead lasted “three harrowing days.” As dozens of evacuation flights left the country, Sabawoon and his family remained on the ground, waiting. Eventually, Sabawoon, the then-director of Kabul University’s Department of Epidemiology, was evacuated to Qatar and then Germany by the U.S. military.
In addition to his home country, Sabawoon was forced to abandon his research and ongoing projects. Only a chance internet connection in Germany allowed him to warn his co-authors that he would be unable to respond to their queries. Taken aback, his colleagues helped him search for a new position. It was then that Dr. Katherine Keyes, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia and a co-author of Sabawoon, introduced him to the Scholars at Risk Network, an NGO concerned with the academic freedom of displaced scholars. The organization protects scholars in their home countries and helps to find them new academic homes if need be.
Now, Sabawoon works at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health in a small, seventh-floor office overlooking the George Washington Bridge. It has been a year since he arrived at Columbia. But Kabul, his former department, and his journey to New York remain ever-present in his mind.
Like many other universities, Columbia has taken on a number of displaced scholars like Professor Sabawoon, including nine fellows at Columbia’s Global Center in Amman, Jordan. Sometimes, scholars are like any other refugee, forced to flee an unstable region for a variety of systemic reasons. But often the academy is specifically targeted: governments can force out researchers and scholars, eliminate their departments, interfere with course material, censor professors, and systematically strip their funding. A combination of both factors are usually at play. In the wake of scholarly expulsion, a complex nexus of universities, visa and immigration offices, private foundations, and NGOs serve to fund, hire, and sponsor those displaced. Ultimately, these systems ensure that scholars are able to continue their work and are not excluded from the international academic community.
The U.S. has a long history of harnessing the intellectual prowess of academic refugees for its national interest, often acting as the receiving end of a region’s brain drain. During and after WWII, America’s scientific and cultural bench deepened dramatically with an influx of European immigrants. Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Von Braun, and Hannah Arendt all settled in the United States after fleeing their respective countries. These scholars who remained in the U.S. helped inaugurate a new age of American cultural and scientific dominance, cementing the place of academic migrants as important figures for the public good.
The United States has traditionally received migrants departing situations toward which it is politically sympathetic. Iranian economists fleeing during the Iranian Revolution’s deposition of the Western-backed Shah flooded into U.S. departments, while Ukrainian refugees have had an easier time finding positions and fellowships than Syrian and Venezuelan scholars. Columbia has worked to rectify this discrepancy. Over the past two years, the University has run the Scholarship for Displaced Students, providing funding for 33 students across 14 schools. These students have come to New York from countries all over the world, including Venezuela, Cameroon, Nepal, and South Sudan. Still, the program is limited. Its 1.5 percent acceptance rate is lower than Columbia College’s, and its 16 yearly scholarships are miniscule in comparison to either the university’s 18,000 non-displaced international students or the nearly 100 million global refugees.
In the last year, however, the U.S. and institutions like Columbia have again taken a greater amount of European scholars as the Russia-Ukraine War has displaced more than eight million people. In January 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the latest aggression in a war which began in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Since then, Columbia’s Harriman Institute, which studies Russia, Eurasia, and East Central Europe, has sponsored four Ukrainian refugees, providing them year-long artists-in-residences at the Paris Reid Hall campus. Columbia has also partnered with other universities to award 35 non-residential fellowships to scholars displaced by the war and provided scholarships to impacted students.
In July 2022, Professor Julia Lajus received a letter offering her a year-long visiting professorship from the Harriman Institute, co-sponsored by the Climate School. When the letter arrived, Lajus was living in Berlin and teaching at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science after fleeing from St. Petersburg, where she taught at the National Research University of Economics. A historian of science, she helped to found the first Master’s program in Russia conducted in English, an interdisciplinary history program studying “usable pasts”—eminently relevant as both Russia and Ukraine mine historical archives for evidence of their version of the past.
Lajus never rose to the administrative level in St. Petersburg. The leadership of the public university system in Russia, she felt, was too connected with the Russian government, one she was increasingly opposed to after the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Her day-to-day teaching remained uninhibited, but she made herself a promise to leave if the state ever interfered with her teaching. It never did. Even now, over a year into the full-scale invasion, the government has yet to restrict the course materials at her former institution. Still, the fear of repression and the connection to an increasingly imperialistic state troubled Lajus enough to motivate her move.
For Sabawoon, his decision to leave had been in the making for at least a couple decades. As he graduated from university, most of his classmates left the country for better jobs and more opportunities abroad, many becoming doctors in Europe and the U.S. An aunt in Norway implored Sabawoon to move, but he felt he had a duty to remain in Afghanistan and help develop its understaffed public health system. “I preferred to stay in the country and serve my people because my country and the people really needed me,” he explained.
Sabawoon’s sense of duty resulted in major gains for Afghanistan’s healthcare systems. In Kabul, he worked on a plan to institutionalize public health research and education, one that would introduce evidence-based decision making into research, teaching, and public health practice in the country. Sabawoon and his colleagues made significant progress toward implementing this plan, establishing courses on evidence-based research in medical, nursing, and dentistry schools as well as introducing biostatistics and other new practices into medical schools. In light of all this progress, deciding to leave twenty years later in the midst of another public health crisis was a difficult decision for Sabawoon. And indeed, much of the progress made from the program has been reversed since the Taliban’s re-capture of the country.
Yet, government repression is not the only roadblock prohibiting scholarship in Afghanistan. Academic freedom is also restricted by access to funding. Research in the country is dependent on donations from international sponsors, and in the wake of the Taliban’s advance, this funding has all but disappeared. Only humanitarian funding for basic services remains. Benefactors have balked at providing research dollars to scholars employed at Taliban-controlled universities, demanding a level of stability, a less oppressive political rule, and a regime less hostile to the West before considering funding. This withdrawal of resources further removes Afghan scholars from the global network, isolating them within the boundaries of their country.
Sabawoon, however, has never bound himself to political borders. “As a person, I do not restrict myself to geographic or ethnic boundaries,” he said. “I see people as human beings. All of us need each other, need to respect each other.” He has always collaborated with a global community of scholars, even when his research has been geared towards the local public health infrastructure. “The world is very small, though it seems to be very large. Everyone, particularly those who have the same profession and same skills, they know each other regardless of their country of residence.”
In Afghanistan, Sabawoon was never isolated from the rest of the international community. However, now living within that wider community, he finds himself further isolated from Afghanistan and his former colleagues. The entirety of his small epidemiology department left immediately after the Taliban’s re-capture of the Afghan government. One a female researcher and the other a professor with young daughters both fled, unable to continue their work in a country where women are now banned from university campuses and girls are forbidden from continuing education after sixth grade.
The number of educators and researchers in Afghanistan has plummeted since 2021. Even as professors are being replaced, the roles have been filled by recent graduates who lack the training and institutional knowledge necessary to teach students on their own. After Sabawoon first left, new additions to the epidemiology department in Kabul called often, asking procedural questions about best practices and talking about their lives under the new regime. But communication is now less frequent as they have settled into their roles, and official collaboration efforts have been blocked by the Minister of Higher Education.
Lajus, meanwhile, has maintained contact with former colleagues in Russia, but still considers the increasingly isolated Russian academy as a primary reason for her exodus. “I didn’t want to stay because I’ve been very international my [entire] career,” she explained. “I do not know how to do science without international connections.” She estimates that at least half of her department left alongside her after Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Her department, which once had students from all over the world, now only has a few international students remaining, mostly from China. Colleagues who have fled Russia have lost access to archives and materials necessary for their work, while researchers who remain have lost access to the wider international academic community.
Limits to global scholarly collaboration impact both researchers who stay in their home countries and those who leave. For those who decide to leave, finding a new home is incredibly difficult, made only slightly more manageable by programs like Scholars at Risk. Prospective refugees have always faced numerous hurdles before they could settle into their new universities. During World War II, the U.S. federal government allowed scholars to skip the capped quota system applied to other refugees. But by the end of 1941, less than 1,000 of these spots were filled as universities hesitated to create positions or find funding for scholars, and the State Department denied thousands of applications. In the eight years from the Nazi capture of the German political system in 1933 to the end of large-scale European immigration to the U.S. in 1941, less than 150 scholars annually were received by American universities.
Documents from those reviewing applications reveal a lack of concern for the life and death situations that scholars were facing. Writing about Edmund Stein, an American professor commented that Stein’s work was “competent and thorough but not brilliant, the sort of thing which good young men in Germany turnout almost automatically.” On the strength of this recommendation, Stein was rejected from a possible job at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research. He never found a professorship and was soon imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1943, he was transported to Majdanek, the extermination camp from which he would not return.
During these eight years, Columbia was no particular safe haven either. University President Nicholas Murray Butler, of Butler Library fame, was particularly unforgiving toward the refugees’ pleas. Murray, a known anti-Semite who hosted the German Ambassador in 1938, was especially hesitant to accept Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi persecution.
While the administration was generally unaccommodating for displaced scholars, individuals within the Columbia faculty made efforts to aid European scholars, conducting fundraising drives, searching for funding, and lobbying for certain scholars. From his office in Schermerhorn Hall, Franz Boas, a founder of modern anthropology, led one of the largest efforts to rescue European scholars. Boas sent $104.70 a month ($2,300 in 2023) directly from his paycheck to the cause. He also wrote letters to Murray, pleading for the University to sign petitions and support scholars. The letters, and Boas’ persistent criticism of the University, led to his eventual dismissal from Columbia.
Now, Scholars at Risk has different goals for displaced scholars. Rather than a commitment to permanent scholarly integration, the program aims to help professors and researchers return to their home countries. Though often unachievable, the goal of SAR is to help stabilize academic communities such that professors can safely return home to their universities. “We do not want to be pulling everybody out of other places and profiting from that,” promised Lisa Anderson, the Chair of SAR’s Board of Directors and a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. Programs to help aid displaced scholars are a “long-term but temporary expedient,” fitting within a larger pursuit of global academic freedom. “We really do think that the importance of academic freedom globally needs to be top of mind for people,” Anderson said. “Otherwise, there will be a very retail saving of careers that doesn’t solve the underlying problem, which is [that] there should be respect for the right to research, the right to learn, the right to teach everywhere.”
SAR’s current goals diverge from earlier rationales for accepting displaced scholars. This discrepancy can be extrapolated to governments' dispositions toward refugees more broadly. Should host countries permanently welcome refugees into the economic and political structures of their society, or should countries merely host refugees until it is safe and stable enough for them to return home?
Among some scholars there is a preference for the latter, a fact which is often present in their academic research. Sabawoon, for example, still studies Afghan public health, hoping to improve his country’s health system from 6,000 miles away.
Scholars are finding similar proximity to their homeland through art. Thirty years ago, poet Natalka Bilotserkivets’ poem “We Will Not Die in Paris” became an unofficial rallying cry for Ukrainian independence, idealizing Paris as a center of creativity and artistic creation, one forbidden and out of reach to Ukrainian artists. Today, as Bilotserkivets finds herself in Paris as part of the Harriman Institute’s artists-in-residence program, her poem once again becomes heartbreakingly relevant.
Poetry, art, and academic research have become powerful tools of resistance for displaced scholars. Bilotserkivets’ poem speaks to a distinct Ukrainian national expression. The war is, in part, intellectual and cultural, catalyzed by Russian attempts to eradicate Ukrainian identity and culture. In response, Ukrainians scattered across the globe are affirming the legitimacy of their own unique culture. Anna Stavychenko, another Harriman artist-in-residence and the former conductor of the Kyiv Philharmonic, has been attempting to introduce Stanislav Lyudkevich and other Ukrainian composers to European audiences to show the distinctiveness of Ukrainian art and its connections with Western Europe. From abroad, these scholars and artists feel they can have the greatest impact generating global support for the country, but their long-term desire remains to return home to a more safe, more stable Ukraine.
For displaced scholars, Columbia and Columbia-affiliated programs have served as safe spaces to continue their studies. Columbia allows these artists, researchers, and teachers access to the global community of scholarship and the possibility to continue their engagement within this network. This multicultural and multinational community fostered at Columbia is rare in the history of scholarship.
Still, however, displaced scholars at Columbia long for their homes above all else. Natalka Bilotserkivets had never been to Paris when she penned her poem. The Paris of the work was merely an Edenic home for artists and creatives, inaccessible to her thirty years ago. Today, however, her home is that which remains out of reach. Home is the goal, and Paris provides the hope, but for many displaced scholars, Columbia and all it offers will make do for now.
Illustration by Samia Menon
Pursuing the Personal
On the elusive, often unsuccessful form of the essay.
By Will Lyman
“The essay stages an encounter between an ‘I’ and the world in which that ‘I’ resides,” writes American essayist Leslie Jamison in the introduction to the 2017 edition of The Best American Essays. Her essay is one that I’ve returned to over the years, as it so deftly identifies the purpose of the form.
I see many students investigating how Columbia is experienced, how it lives in our bodies and the minutiae of our lives, through the innocuous genre of the essay. The personal essay is a misfit in the realm of literature—one distinct and, arguably, secondary to its popular sisters, poetry and fiction. The essay is intimate, swirling, and argumentative. It chronicles a writer’s best attempt at wrestling with a problem or a question. Publications like The Blue and White and The Columbia Daily Spectator are the primary producers of student personal essays on campus, and thus function as repositories for the collisions of the self into the world. They document how we respond to the dizzying experience of attending a sprawling and, at times, bewildering university.
Yet, the personal essay is an exhausted form on this campus. It easily lends itself to laziness and solipsism because it allows the writer to supplement argumentative content with their personal experience. The resulting work is often narrow in scope and refuses to consider the wealth of previous media on the topic. It is a quality I attribute to youth: the belief that anything that didn’t happen to us is unintelligible. It is for this reason that many personal essays written by young people are meandering, self-absorbed, and utterly dishonest.
American essayism, as we know it today, grew out of the anxiety and malaise following World War II. An explosion of literary journals led to the mass popularity of the form, which saw writers interrogating the American ideal as it formed around them. Notable works from this period are now staples of many Columbia syllabi: Reinhold Neibuhr’s “Humor and Faith” (1946), James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” (1953), Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), and Joan Didion’s “On the Morning After the Sixties” (1970).
Yet, these post-war texts were far from the first evolution of the personal essay genre. In the 16th century, Montaigne, the self-proclaimed father of the genre, sought to intimately reflect the process of human thinking in his writing. His approach is interrogative, self-questioning, and chiefly concerned with representing a composite self. He writes about defecation in the same searching, exploratory manner that he weighs rationality and metaphysics. He argues that to cleave off any element of human experience is to distance oneself from inquiry. We are made up of our sensuousness, frustration, and uncertainty. Montaigne’s essays perfectly capture the collision of the self and the world it inhabits.
Since Montaigne, writers on the margins have ensured the prevalence of the form. Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison recognized the capacity of the genre for personal confession and cultural criticism, positioning the essay as a useful political tool for Black writers. Adrienne Rich and Betty Friedan came to the forefront of the genre in the 1970s, laying the groundwork for the ensuing women’s movement. It is thus no surprise that, in the present day, students turn to the essay to deliver cutting social critiques of the educational institution they inhabit.
Jamison explains: “Particularity is the native tongue of the essay.” The genre exists through specificity, a pinprick precision on images, experiences, and symbols that help distill nebulous concepts into digestible, human particulars. The most successful essays take aim at an abstract concept—a political ideology, a media phenomenon, or a human woe like death and fulfillment—and deliver an understanding of the idea through a relevant personal experience.
This same particularity sits at the heart of Ning Chang’s “Being the Rabbit,” which whittles the wave of anti-Asian violence into a single image: SWAT teams swarming Monterey Park in the wake of a mass shooting while “Happy Year of the Rabbit” banners hang in the background. In Ariel Gilbert’s essay for the Spectator, “From a BLM fist to two fingers,” which ran this past February, he documents his two experiences being racially profiled by public safety officers during his first year. He describes a protest on Low Steps filled with raised fists in an ode to the Black Lives Matter movement. Gilbert, seeing this, raises two fingers to represent public safety’s disrespect of him and others. These essays succeed because they situate the authors’ personal experience as a drop in the ocean. They provide a representative image while keeping the focus on a larger phenomenon. The self is in correct proportion to the world it inhabits.
“The personal is political,” Jamison continues. She writes shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump and explores the purpose of the essay in a time when our country was—perhaps for the first time in many of our lives—openly asserting the hostile, chauvinistic principles that have always governed it. The collection grapples with the anger, fear, and uncertainty of living at the mercy of an untrustworthy governmental institution.
Indeed, the personal essay remains a popular vehicle for recounting personal encounters with institutional obstacles. On campus, many student essays grapple with a profound sense of disillusionment with Columbia. From disappointing decisions like refusing to bargain with the Graduate Workers’ contract terms to full-blown cartoon villainy in trying to evict a preschool in Harlem, I’ve often found myself knocking on the foundation of my trust in the University and finding it hollow. We have every reason to be skeptical; it has undoubtedly been a strange time to study here. Yet, I see many people misinterpreting Columbia’s recent moral transgressions as a purely contemporary phenomenon. While the challenges to our college experience have catalyzed a loss of faith in the University’s administration, it is perhaps the inevitable disillusionment from the hope and awe of a prospective student—the effect of moving from distance to proximity. The institutional greed and injustice we’re encountering is not unique to the past four years. Rather, it is an inevitable component of coming of age under American institutions—as those that claim to prioritize advancing knowledge, greater human understanding, and serving society, are often more concerned with profit and expansion.
Nearly everything I’ve written for The Blue and White I now find silly. My time here has been characterized by a discontent which evades attempts to pinpoint its origin. In response, I’d muse about the loneliness that pervaded my experience of campus life, how it took the form of empty classrooms and EC-party angst. Hearing others talk about my essays made me certain of the fact that they were hollow gestures at meaning. They expressed my wish to feel complex, artful, externalized, and circulated. Chief among these essays was my NSOP issue Blue Note “How to Disappear,” which was, at best, my attempt to grant myself some tragic figure status for not having the college lay itself at my feet as I’d expected. For this reason, my essays soured upon publication. With others’ eyes on them, they shrugged off their disguises and revealed themselves to be meandering and self-indulgent—two cardinal sins of personal essays. Essays ask the question: Why are we doing what we’re doing? Most of the time, I had no answers.
For many, the personal essay is the threshold one must cross to guarantee admission to a University. The Common App essay sits at the heart of the college admissions process, and thus tasks high-schoolers with espousing meaning from their young lives. It asks one to position themself as the Next Best American Thinker, with prompts that roughly translate to questions like: Who are you? Why do you matter? What have you overcome? What have you accomplished?
The Common App essay introduces the genre of the personal essay to high schoolers across the nation as an arena in which they prove their excellence, not where they question their own limitations. I’ve tutored kids on their Common App essays, and I’ve repeatedly encountered the same central obstacle: an impulse to write toward a mould or an ideal, and away from the temperate reality of the self. Many of us experience an exhaustion with personal writing, as it demands an examination and understanding of the self that is exhaustive.
Inexperience is the hurdle which one must overcome to write a successful essay. In forming a comprehensive, exploratory essay, all things must be considered: You must research the topic, ground your inquiry in experience, and question your own argumentation. When you’re young, there is simply less time to familiarize yourself with the legion of work that came before you. It is what leads us to say things like “our country is more divided than ever,” when we’ve had a civil war. I’ve sat in pitch meetings that seriously consider writing about “sad girls”' as a novel creation of TikTok, as if the melancholic, apathetic female figure hasn’t existed since medieval folklore, then reimagined in the romance novel, then parodied in widely known works like Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This is the form’s most common pitfall: a refusal to see that one’s experience of the world is not revolutionary just because they’re living it for the first time.
In his May 1963 profile in LIFE Magazine, “The Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are,” essayist James Baldwin put it best: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
In examining the world through personal experience, there exists such a thing as too personal, too self-encased. Unsuccessful essays often refuse to examine their own shortcomings and limitations. I’m stressing the importance of a canon, of the Core, of tradition—rooting ourselves in the past as a means of refuting the egotism of the present. There is comfort in knowing our woes don’t belong solely to us. I think of it like jazz—an artistic tradition that privileges improvisation, soul, and the self in conversation with others, particularly those musicians who paved the way before you. To be a good jazz musician, you have to listen.
Avian Muñoz’s aptly titled essay, “Conservatives invited me, a progressive, to their convention. Here’s what happened,” published in the Spectator this January, describes the author’s participation in the David Network’s annual conference in Washington D.C.—a space that celebrates right-wing thought. Ultimately, he concludes that “while the David Network and conservative thinkers claim their right to promulgate their fabricated culture war, we can claim our right to dismiss them.” Dismissal is Muñoz’s dominant strategy, as the piece fails to engage with the content of the convention in favor of broadly discussing conservative hysteria. The essay’s title promises an exploratory narrative, one that promises action and engagement on the part of the author. Yet, Muñoz’s piece makes for a largely unsatisfying read.
In response to Muñoz, Luke Seminara of the Columbia Independent penned an essay titled “On the So-Called Right to Dismiss Conservatives.” Seminara asserts that “conservatism is far more abstract and intellectual” than Muñoz has portrayed it, and that the Spectator essay refuses to engage with the content of the David Network conference. While Seminara does identify the deficiencies of Muñoz’s piece, he resorts to condescension. The essay reads like a hit piece on Muñoz, complete with mocking quotations of the piece and digs at Muñoz’s editor position at the Spectator. It’s too personal.
Muñoz and Seminara’s essays both demonstrate common faults in the form. They write not about the event that ties them together, but about extraneous grievances. In doing so, they become caricatures themselves, as they refuse to see each other as more than a representative identity of an entire cultural whole that they detest and that alienates them. Their pieces lack self-awareness and a true desire to examine the ideological divide they contend with. In doing so, they waste the potential for any real understanding.
Personal writing suffers when there is no attempt to branch beyond one’s field of vision. To borrow from Jamison’s lexicon, the “I” should recognize its place in the world it encounters—accounting for its lack of omniscience and potential bias. It is this self-awareness that gives the genre its unparalleled capacity for inquiry. It’s the whole point. When we refuse to look beyond ourselves, we poison our ability to communicate.
Illustration by Maca Hepp
Centerfold by Cadence Gonzales
Illustration by Amelie Scheil
By Lynnette Widder
He is at a table beneath the fruit trees: the wind lifts, and pink petals sheet towards the crushed stone ground. Some come to rest on the steel-clipped white tablecloth, others cling to the lick at the nape of his neck.
As the petals fall, I stand on the terrace, and even nearsighted, I see him perfectly. With the round tip of a silver plate knife, he is chasing a bit of pink from his white wine.
By late summer he is a line drawing against the sun, at the edge of the rooftop we reach from my window. His shirt flaps on his long torso. He jumps the gap, parapet to parapet, then turns to watch while I jump after him.
To say, in retrospect, he loved me, might be true. To say I loved him would, then, have meant I’d given it too much thought.
“My life is a snake-line of just-body affairs,” he’d written on green quadrille paper. I saw his letter much later, by indirection: the top page, addressed to me, lay face up the night I slept in his room, in his absence. My life had been a snake-line, so I understood what he meant. I had already begun smoothing its meanders.
Damita gives good head, it said in Sharpie on the wall, and below that, in ballpoint, Yeah because she doesn’t have one. I added, How can you tell? and hoped she wouldn’t know it was me.
Damita and Paulie. Paulie was playing bass with the Irish band whose regular bassist OD’d when they got to New York but didn’t want to cancel the tour. Paulie and Damita were Rockabilly, a different crowd. Still, everyone knew everyone. Lisanne liked one of the Irish guys, so we all went after the set to a big apartment on West 58th. It belonged to the New York reporter for NME. That’s what Lisanne’s guy told us.
Somewhere between the club and 58th Street, Paulie and Damita took the Irish guy who sang lead to a bodega—the kind with spotted bananas, a rack of Twinkies, and the real stuff behind the counter. They bought something because the singer guy was lying face-up on the bare floor talking in what Lisanne said was Gaelic but her guy said was bollocks.
Paulie and Damita were in the kitchen boiling hot dogs. I went for a bun and Damita swatted it out of my hand.
“Buns are for dogs,” she said. When she said the word dog it had a “W” in it. Paulie thought that was hilarious.
Damita knew my thing. I sold drink tickets, she worked the bar. We shared tips, even the ones in folded tin foil. She’s the one who told me to take my shirt off, get up on the bar and dance. She was right. The money was better and the men with their fifty grabby hands were far away. So it was mean, the thing with the bun.
“Eat a dog, just eat it. You wanna be the only vegetarian junkie in New York?” Paulie was waving the fork he’d pulled from the steaming pot. Translucent oval flecks of red fat surfed the water. Damita mouthed her dog, in and out, like it was Paulie or something.
“No,” I said, “just vegetarian. She tell you junkie?” I cared about accuracy. Damita looked straight at me and then bit off half her dog. The thing about giving good head? I doubt it. Not that Paulie deserved better.
“Na Schatz” sounded true in his soft Southern a and aspirated z. He stood and lifted me off the gravel beneath the blooming trees, my reward for reaching him unseen, then laying my cold palms on the skin above his collar.
Between bitter winter and blooming trees, when I’d foolishly bicycled without gloves to the university where he worked and where I used a table he’d cleared for me, he warmed my small frozen hands in his attenuated fingers. Vogelknochen, fragile bones like a bird’s, he said on the third or fourth chilly morning. Bird bones, I knew, were strong by geometry, by material property, strong enough to glide on thermics. There is nothing fragile about birds, I told him. Then he held my hands tightly, too tightly, as if testing my bird-bones in his grip. When he released the pressure, he knelt and turned my hands supine to kiss each palm. I pulled away, uncertain of his sudden chivalry.
We spent many days in his closed room. It overlooked the wide street named for the day East Berliners stormed the Brandenburg Gate, for the day the Soviet tanks arrived to stop them. Each evening I smelled of the cigarettes he rolled, filter between his lips as he rubbed tobacco from a blue pouch into thin papers. I had known other, better highs, by then long past.
While I wrote, he sketched on white tracing paper from narrow rolls. Our room was in an unpeopled suite, once used for Krankenhausbau, which I liked to translate literally, as “sick-house building.” The suite was prominently located, adjacent to the main lobby of the architecture building, slated for a different use. He’d brokered the room, as is, before an upcoming demolition. Abbruchkonditionen: conditions of breaking away, literally translated.
I lived under similar conditions, as is, a lease too brief to qualify for liberal squatters’ rights but cheap enough to give me and my three roommates a huge, crumbling, coal-heated Gründerzeit apartment on a side arm of the canal. Gründer meant “founders,” zeit “era.” The odd German term for Turn-of-the-Century preoccupied me. What “founding” was meant? Urban expansion, certainly. Specific forms of architecture built on speculation. Germany, it seemed to me, had reason to forget its foundings and refoundings, Reich upon Reich.
Robert always had pink silicon tubing tied around his ankle. We joked that it was his warning label. Caution: Poison. He meant it as hero worship. He roadied for Johnny Thunders, when Johnny could get a gig. He figured that if he wanted to be like Johnny, he had to shoot like Johnny. He invented the tourniquet as an accessory even before he had the habit to need it.
“Dora and Robert were gettin’ it on when I came into the living room this morning,” Dan told me, “and they didn’t stop gettin’.”
Dan was a stewardess for American Airlines. He and I lived with two real, girl stewardesses, Janine and Sandra. When the girls were in New York, they slept at their future husbands’ uptown. They only showed up when they were pissed off. These girls were serious. Dan always tried to work them for rebound sex. Guy was a freak. What guy likes to serve drinks to businessmen on planes?
“Drop dead,” I said, “and tell me something new. Or true.”
I was eating Janine’s frozen creamed spinach, from the last time she ditched her future husband. They made up fast, so she never got around to the spinach. Stewardesses have to watch their weight, at least the girls, eat lots of frozen vegetables. Dan ate burgers at the coffee shop and drank beer in front of the TV. You go figure.
“Can you give me Dora’s number?” Dan added, “Girl is fine.”
I opened my mouth to show him the spinach on my tongue. “Maybe,” I said, “but only if you go with me to Alphabet City and do your jive turkey routine there. No one says get it on. No one says fine. Dora thinks you’re nobody. Lay off my friends.”
I was still in high school and he was a so-called adult, but he raised his handsand backed out of the kitchen. I heard him turn on the TV.
I let Robert sleep over if he wanted, even after the time I tried to have sex with him. It was terrible. Junk is no good for your dick. Then he stole all my laundry quarters.
The villa through which I had passed; its garden with the crushed stone ground and blooming trees; the street on which the villa stood with others like it: these were all Gründerzeit. But the trees planted when the villas were new would have been firewood even before the Soviets entered the city.
The street was one of two named for the city’s dynastic electors. The other, wide and lined with five-story buildings, replacements for those destroyed by bombings, was more than a street: a boulevard, a Damm, which in German also denotes the dunes that protect North Sea beachfronts. German, my new language, remained translucent, a palimpsest of roots and stems and equivalencies to roots and stems embedded, Germanic or Latinate or Saxon, in English, the language in which I will always only be native.
On the ground floor of the villa was a café, staffed by Viennese in smoking suits. Newspapers, clamped between polished wooden shafts with brass hooks, hung from racks or lay, thumbed and coiled, on red velveteen banquettes. We drank mélanges there on Saturday afternoons throughout the winter, after visiting Turkish fruit mongers at the weekly market; or on Sundays, after a long walk in the royal park and before a movie. The villa was a perfect Neoclassical cube, tripartite: sockel, piano nobile, attic. Its transformation into a café felt inevitable, as if its life as a private home had been only a prelude.
I had a year to study spaces described by the Feuilletonisten: Brentano, Kracauer, Roth, Benjamin. Hotel lobbies, Spartakiads, streetscapes, movie theaters, department stores. Cafés. I sat in the East German archive in Jebenstrasse. I annotated Reklam paperbacks. I drew diagrams. I wrote. I loved the café in the villa although I knew from what I read that it was neither real nor genuine but instead, a fiction of the 1970s. Not much ever came of my work.
I spent my grant on books and rent and coffee at the café in the villa; on our dinners in the garden; on bicycle repairs; on a trip to Prague where my wallet was stolen as I waited to buy bubble gum in a cartoon label; on a trip to Ios, where I arrived too early to meet my friends and left before they came. When my small monthly stipend failed me, I called my father and then stood in line at American Express to cash the hundred dollars he’d agreed to.
It was years before I returned to his city. He failed to set a time or date in his invitation, so I arrived at an address I found in the phone book. We sat, briefly, as we talked about his small life and mine. His tiny terrace was strung with purple clematis. I watched him roll cigarettes. We said nothing about love.
Measure 4 Measure
24/7, 4.5 stars.
After Anthony J’s Google Reviews
By Stephen Dames
Illustration by Maca Hepp
Jeff always loved me. And I him.
When I was a kid I used to go down
to the 24/7 on weekends
to see Jeff, him always telling me
“stay out of the back kid.”
A great big-boned guy. SUPERB EATS.
I always got the chicken-salad sandwich,
extra sours on the side.
(Jeff made them, sold them, stole them)
We did shots with the leftover juice.
Some friends and I used to burn ants
in the parking lot of the 24/7. Jeff
loaned us lenses from those 6 dollar glasses
to do it with. I had a taste for it—the burning.
I graduated in ‘04. I would use Jeff’s
blue Motorola Razr to call my girlfriend,
(Jeff’s girlfriend) and we would meet,
the two of us (mostly) alone grabbing
at each other in the back.
I still have a beer poster from there but the brand isn’t around anymore.
The freezer always had too much frost.
Jeff had to nail the place shut in ‘06
but we rode out the storm inside,
drinking his beer on my tab. The sign
blew away but all we could do was smile.
Time waits for no one.
Tanea Lunsford Lynx
Where you come from, there is a culture.
By Muni Suleiman
Between 23andMe and Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., it's safe to say that the idea of lineage is becoming increasingly prevalent in popular culture. It is also one that Tanea Lunsford Lynx, CC ’13, explores extensively. A San Francisco-based creative and activist, their work spans across media: written, visual, and performance art. Currently a faculty member at the City College of San Francisco as well as a recent Artist in Residence at the San Francisco Public Library, their work has been featured in Foglifter and Nothing to Lose But Our Chains: Black Voices on Activism, Resistance, and Love, amongst other publications.
Having studied cultural anthropology and human rights at Columbia, it wasn’t until their senior year that they revived their interest in writing. Now, they find resonance in how their educational background in cultural anthropology, human rights, and social change has imbued their writing with an ethnographic foundation of observing, note-taking, and preserving. They’re currently working on a novel entitled Sanctuary City, an investigation into the experiences of Black San Francisco, gentrification, and police violence. In addition to writing, Lunsford Lynx frequently experiments with other disciplines such as film and collected oral histories. And in their Women and Gender Studies classes, they navigate education, often marred by punitive structures, as a form of empowerment.
All of Lunsford Lynx’s work leverages vivid imagery, culturally-specific language, and community narratives of resistance to depict deeply intimate experiences often marginalized by anti-Blackness. In doing so, they honor the people and the places fundamental to who they are. Their work, as they describe, requests and requires reverence for generations, communities, and individuals often disenfranchised from that deep respect.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Illustration by Jorja Garcia
The Blue & White: Throughout your artist bios, you describe yourself as a fourth generation San Franciscan. What does this concept of lineage mean to your connection to San Francisco?
Tanea Lunsford Lynx: It’s important to name the folks who came before me and to acknowledge their place in the context of this city as I make myself known to others. Part of that is that both sides of my family have been here for four generations.
In the context of a place, four generations is actually not that much, but in the context of San Francisco, where folks are being pushed out, priced out, it is quite significant. But we know that San Francisco is unceded Ohlone territory. Folks have been there for so many more generations than that. I think naming that I’m fourth generation San Franciscan is also acknowledging part of the lineages that have been there much longer than my family as well.
B&W: On San Franciscans being pushed out, you often describe your work as fighting for places and communities that people no longer remember, documenting ways of life that no longer exist by means of structural inequalities and state violence. How do you understand art as a way of remembering?
TLL: I love this question.
I think art, and particularly writing, can be a form of ethnography, a form of remembering, in a very powerfully subjective way. It’s acknowledging that this is what happened from my standpoint, this is what it looked like from my view. And particularly in a context like San Francisco, where the evidence of what I saw quite literally is no longer there, like buildings being torn down or communities being pushed out, that writing, that remembering, can be quite radical.
I’m also tapping into a lineage of Black feminist thinkers, artists, teachers, and activists who saw and found power in that subjectivity and created art. I’m thinking about folks like Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Patricia Hill Collins, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and so many more who found a way of being in a relationship with places where they were from. So, in that way, they open up a reminder that memory can be healing. Memory can be power. Memory can be reclamation. Memory can be manifestation. I think a lot about Zora Neale Hurston’s ethnographies, and then I think a lot about Toni Morrison’s Sula.
B&W: I love that book so much.
B&W: It’s interesting because it’s almost like you’re also mentioning these Black feminist writers and authors as another form of a lineage. Maybe not as biological, but in thought and artist philosophy. I wonder how, as a Black writer, you navigate rhetoric that personal anecdotes aren’t real. Especially how Black experiences are discounted by, “Where are the numbers? Where are the facts?”
TLL: I think what you’re getting at is just how subjectivity is not prized as valid or rigorous, when realistically it is actually the farce of white supremacy that teaches us that only the written word and only the statistics are what make for capital T-truth. Realistically, in my lineage—birth, mentor, and communal—so much of our healing power and our staying power has been in story.
Story has quite literally saved lives. When I think about Black midwives or folks who were freedom fighters in different ways, we didn’t, or we couldn’t, write down many of these things. But it was a beautiful duty, an inheritance, to pass these things forward through story.
To prize solely that which is about the facts and the statistics without a qualitative story or without the voice of folks at the table, it’s just boring. It’s been done. For example, so much of the census is based in numbers. Also, we know that so many of our folks are not counted. If we’re only looking for a dominant transcript, we’re only going to get the folks who feel safe opting in.
I think there is something particular about the site of Columbia that's really interesting in this question. Every generation or so, there is a group of students who hold a nonviolent direct action at Butler Library. Being in relationships with the names of folks who are in the Core Curriculum that are chiseled into that library, and placing a temporary banner over it with theorists, writers, and artists, particularly women and femmes of color, that shows a possibility of what could be. And that absolutely prizes story and other ways of knowing besides prizing folks who are lauded within the canon as, you know, Cis. Het. White. Old. Dead. Men.
B&W: You’re creating work that doesn’t translate itself, but it’s more rooted in Black experiences for Black audiences and Black readers. Why is that important to you?
TLL: Yeah, I think it’s important that my work doesn’t translate itself because I know who I’m talking to and I want to reach them.
It’s as if I’m talking to someone who I have a relationship with, someone else comes into the room, and my voice changes to acknowledge that they’re there. I think we Black women, Black non-binary folks, folks across gender within the Black experience, particularly in the United States, spend a lot of time having to literally translate our experiences to make them understood by other folks or to prove [ourselves] really.
So choosing to reclaim this written space as one where I’m not doing that is quite intentional and it’s very freeing. It’s saying, “I don’t have to do that.” It’s saying the conversation that I’m having between me and this community is valid on its own. And if you’re eavesdropping, like okay, but you are a guest.
B&W: That’s such a good point. Even in classrooms, I feel like my language is sometimes policed at Columbia. Especially in classes like CC and LitHum, as I’m sure you’re familiar.
TLL: Yes! Oh, it’s not gonna last forever.
B&W: Did you find that your time in New York as a Columbia student, but also outside of the Morningside bubble, affected how you saw San Francisco once you returned there, if at all?
TLL: During my time at Columbia, I was very intentional about also being at school in the city. It was important for me to go take dance classes at Alvin Ailey. It was important for me to walk down 125th as often as I could. It was important for me to go get my hair done at salons with folks who look like me. It was important for me to make friends who were making art in different parts of the city that weren’t recognized in large museums or venues. The city was absolutely my teacher.
I think a lot of my experience in New York did beg the question of public space and who gets to be in it in a way that’s not policed, regulated, or surveilled. There are so many open public spaces within New York that folks use as part of their home.
And so I thought about what that could look like. I thought about Black folks resting, talking story, playing dominoes and chess and being together. And I saw a real absence of that in San Francisco: Black folks outside being together. 3rd St. in San Francisco was a space historically where that was folks' experiences, particularly my grandmother's.
B&W: I think a lot of the explicit and implicit messaging at Columbia encourages acceleration and that you should leave behind your hometown. The choice to go back to your hometown is often perceived as going backwards, but you actively encourage people to think about where they’re from and go back, literally and metaphorically. How did you know that you wanted to go back to San Francisco after your time at Columbia and in New York?
TLL: I chose to go back to San Francisco, to come back home, because I was offered work as a restorative justice kind of counselor/facilitator, and it gave me the opportunity to interrupt a criminal legal system that had devastated not only my family, but also so many families within my community. I came back for this job to do this work, but something that I’m inviting folks to sit with is this idea that where you come from, there is a culture. It’s valuable. It’s a part of you in some way or another, and there’s work to be done. There are stories to be documented. There are things to be uncovered and honored. There are things to be righted and corrected, and there is an essence of you in that place. One of the things that’s so unique about where we come from, regardless of where it is, is that we’re in it.
One of the particularly isolating and violent forms that gentrification takes on is a desire for homogeneity. So we see buildings that look exactly the same. These pop-up restaurants that look exactly the same, or these new cultural events—big quotations with the cultural events—that look exactly the same. There’s something that strips the history of a place in a desire for it to be comfortable for folks who aren’t from there. In the context of gentrification, a lot of what I’m doing is not only digging into my memories and my words in this place, but those of my family, those of my neighbors, those of my community, and those of folks who came before me.
All of that wealth of living, that wealth of knowledge, that wealth of culture is in every other place. But it’s the farce of white supremacy that tells us that that’s not a culture.
B&W: You currently have work situated in the exhibit titled Muni Raised Me (no relation), and it’s described as a “love letter to working-class San Francisco” and “an exploration of land that is not ours, we will never own, and what we owe.” How did you come to this more complex understanding of your relationship to San Francisco?
TLL: I think part of that is what it means to be born and raised here. When I think about the mentors who raised me up [and] the organizations where I worked, a lot of the cultural ways of being and becoming radicalized in this place has to do with being in a right relationship with the land and with other folks. Coming up as a young person in San Francisco and learning to organize, I also learned to build altars. I also learned to identify Native and Indigenous plants. I also learned the name and the language of this place, what it was called before, the people who still steward this land, the fights for autonomy on this land.
One of the deep cultures of resistance here is about remembering. I’m grateful as an educator now to be able to infuse all of those learnings into my teachings as well because it’s so deeply braided, which is such a beautiful opportunity for solidarity. It was in the cultural and physical landscape of this place.
When I think about Alcatraz, for example: it’s a huge tourist attraction, [and] the visits to Alcatraz are run by the National Park Service. Folks pay to get on a ferry to go there and listen to all these tours, but Alcatraz was occupied by Indigenous folks reclaiming that space and that land through Sunrise Ceremony at least twice a year. That’s just one example of how our history and cultural landscape is just weaved in.
B&W: I found myself really fascinated by another part of the exhibit, which is the idea that public transit is a mode in which people come of age. Atlanta, where I’m from, is a lot more car-dependent, but New York really helped me see how public transit enforces community.
TLL: I think your point about public transportation is about reclaiming the commons. Just like the parks, buses are public spaces that are made possible for and by the public. By us, for us.
There might be 20 people on a crowded bus, one person is playing a song, and half of the bus really likes it. There’s a culture in that moment. Or, a bus line goes down through a certain part of the city that might be really wealthy and unfriendly, which is not uncommon during times of gentrification, and then I might turn a corner and then be in this neighborhood where folks know each other’s names and speak to the bus driver. Then, you know, they get off and it keeps going. So I think there’s something really beautiful about the ways that we can build culture together in transient spaces and choose to relate to each other or not, choose to acknowledge the story that’s there or not.
B&W: Another note on community, and I want to make sure that I don’t overlook this, is that you also talk about your community in terms of queerness and how that also informs your work in resistance. I would love to hear you talk more about this very specific community of Black queer people in San Francisco.
TLL: Yes! Growing up in San Francisco, it was clear that I was in a city that was more queer and gay-friendly than other parts of the United States. Even still, it did not mean that we were free from homophobia or transphobia. It just meant that that was a part of the fabric of our city.
As I got older, moving into my place within that fabric was nuanced. A lot of the places where folks felt safe taking up space being both Black and queer were in pockets outside of the mainstream of what it looked like to be queer. Some of the most sacred spaces I’ve been a part of are for folks who are Black and queer in the city, and sometimes those moments were, like the bus, transient. They didn’t last very long, or we created them in motion. They were autonomous or reclaimed spaces.
But there is a deep and rich lineage of Black queerness in San Francisco as well. Members of The Cockettes were Black and queer. When I think about the organizing of clubs and feminist bookstores, there were Black queer women and femmes in particular who were also making attempts to gather.
I think of folks like Pat Parker, who was here in the Bay both in San Francisco and in Oakland, making work and creating spaces for women and femmes to heal through an artistic sense, but also in a medical, cultural sense through clinics. That history was here.
B&W: I’m interested in your abolition work outside of art. I also want to acknowledge that you are a child of an incarcerated parent. Was it difficult working within the community to imagine a world outside of punitive prison systems, especially as it pertains to juvenile prisons?
TLL: Yeah, I think that was some of the most impactful work I’ve ever done because it not only required me to imagine a possibility of a future that I had not seen and didn’t have a framework for, but it also required me to convince others that that is possible. It meant changing punitive habits and recognizing punitive habits with other folks who were in that path of least resistance. Something about prisons and jails, and particularly those for youth, is that they are hidden in plain sight. They’re recognized as a norm, and yet [their] violence is known so deeply that they can become abstracted—I’m going back to the example of Alcatraz—as a literal attraction.
Our imagination for the punitive is deep, it’s nuanced, it’s rich. But our imagination for liberation, our life outside of that, is really limited. I think that speaks to how pervasive the prison and carceral system is, but it was such an honor because I got to change my own mind. I got to change other people’s minds.
That can be really affirming because I think when one of the main questions around abolition is, "Okay, and what else? What are we going to do when this happens?” And it's like, no, there's a framework for what we do when it happens.
B&W: Speaking about abolition, it’s been on my mind because I’m from Atlanta where policing is manifesting in such a physical way through Cop City. I really related to how you were writing about the disorienting experience of not only a city where you grew up rapidly changing, but also rapidly changing in a way that is violent to who you are.
TLL: When we think about all of those hubs where Black and Indigenous folks in particular are being pushed out, marginalized, and surveilled, it’s a staple part of the process of gentrification that more funding goes to police and more money goes to surveillance ops as a means to push folks out. I'm so grateful for folks who are organizing to stop the taking up of that space.
I think earlier we talked about a curriculum as a values document. A budget is quite similar. To say, "This is where our money goes," is to say this is what is important to us, this is what we value. The same is true for land. For folks to take up or sweep land and use it to train for violence is a way of saying, “This is what's important to us.”
We’ve seen this in budgets across all of these spaces. It’s certainly true for the budget in San Francisco as far as more resources being put towards police and surveillance, and such is also true for Chicago, Austin, and Brooklyn.
B&W: In your artist statement during your residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts, you wrote that you’re often “investigating joy and considering how to write about it authentically.” A lot of Black feminists have also written in this tradition of using joy and hope as a radical tool for change.
But I often find it so hard to do that sometimes, especially in the face of police violence. I wonder how you’ve been able to investigate and write about joy over these past few years, and how do you advise others to at least try to do the same?
TLL: Sometimes when it’s hard for me to access joy, I think about it like medicine. I literally cannot keep going if I have a deficit. So I have to put down whatever I’m doing, whether that means asking for an extension or asking for grace later, to prioritize this.
Having joy allows me to feel where the yes and where the no is in my body. It’s a catalyst for knowing how I can use the power that I have; it’s a reminder that I can say no, that I can say yes. It’s a reminder of my humanness, and it’s therefore also revolutionary. Above all, I have autonomy in my body and a connection to others.
It doesn’t have to be a whole day of joy, but it can be like, “I’m going to reclaim time to sit and listen to the birds,” or, “I’m going to reclaim time to be outside in this new hour during daylight savings time. I’m going to reclaim time to enjoy every bite of my meal.”
There are different ways that I can reach out for it with whatever energy that I have.
I would advise others to connect with what it is that brings them authentic joy. I would advise them to know that joy has been seen as a luxury afforded to some, but to remember that it’s a lineage. It’s a birthright. It’s a duty. And it’s often forgotten. But it’s key to everything.
B&W: That’s such an inspiring response. Oh my goodness, that felt really great. I think we got to this question in our conversation, but to ask it a little bit more explicitly, what do you think is the purpose of art in social movements, especially movements pertaining to abolition?
TLL: Art is everything. I’m just thinking so presently of the Black Panthers right now and how art was an integral part of everything, whether it was the art of meal making for each other and for children, whether it was the art of hosting space for meetings, whether it was the art of taking care of each other’s afros, or whether it was creating literal art like paintings, drawings, and taking photos.
Art allows other folks to be invited into a movement and to overhear people talking about themselves and their goals in a way that might make [the] movement irresistible. Toni Cade Bambara talked about this, that the role of the artist is to make revolution irresistible, and I so agree with that.
There’s an exhibit that’s up at the Oakland Museum of California. It’s a smaller exhibit of Angela Davis’s life and work, and what is key throughout the exhibit is all of these artistic renderings of Angela Davis that literally propelled the campaign for her freedom. Walk down the street and see her face in storefront windows, see a drawing of her in the newspaper, and see her on different stickers and shirts, like “Free Angela, Free Angela, Free Angela.”
It was irresistible. You had to see her face everywhere. People were claiming their solidarity with her, visually through art, and that created the conditions for her freedom like an act of love. And that is incredible power. I think it’s seen as softer power, and soft is often the way.
On journalism, education reform, and a Lerner 555 Bat Mitzvah.
By Sylvie Epstein
Not long ago, our magazine was exclusively a print publication. The Blue and White would arrive on campus tri-semesterly in its classic cobalt lettering, and undergrads would peruse our stories on the physical page. In those days, Bwog was our online persona, our more tech savvy sibling. And from 2010-2011, The New York Times’ Eliza Shapiro, CC ’12, ran that web machine. But she also attended Blue and White meetings, writing several pieces printed in blue. She is a magazine alumna, and for that we are proud.
As an undergrad, Shapiro’s coverage of Columbia’s attempt to increase its status as a research-oriented institution and her subsequent investigation of Harvard’s mental health crisis for The Daily Beast (her first job post-graduation) foreshadowed her current post as an education reporter for The New York Times. Shapiro left Columbia with an open mind, ready to report breaking news in a moment’s notice and to cover whatever was asked of her. When I spoke with her on a Tuesday in early April, she told me the story of her last eleven years in the world of journalism. Those earliest days at The Daily Beast, her initial, random assignment of the education beat at Politico, and her 2018 welcome to the Times, have helped Shapiro become a preeminent expert on the ins and outs of city politics and schools. Yet she remembers her days as a student journalist at Columbia, fondly characterizing Bwog and The Blue and White as “really good preparation” for what was to come.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Illustration by Madeleine Hermann
The Blue and White: I was wondering if you could tell me more about your experience at Bwog and doing certain student journalism while you were here.
Eliza Shapiro: I would say Bwog is the thing that really, really set me up to be a professional journalist. I was extremely focused on Bwog and The Blue and White when I was at Columbia. I barely had enough classes to have a major in history; I was really, really focused on being a student journalist. And, I actually didn’t even anticipate at the time how helpful it would be for me in my career as a journalist.
I just got really, really obsessed with thinking about how to make Bwog something that everyone on campus would want to read. I was really obsessed with audience and thinking about our audience as the undergraduate community of Columbia. And I feel like sometimes when there was an attempt to broaden that, the stories actually became less interesting to students, so I was laser focused on thinking about what people actually wanted to read. We amped up the number of posts, we tried to do more features stuff, we did a little bit more investigative stuff: There was a big drug bust during the year that I was Bwog editor. We really ran into that and covered it really intensively. I think I was really, really ambitious about what the site could do.
Also, running Bwog really helped me think about how to write for an online publication or how to understand the internet. Bwog comments were always infamous for being really nasty. And I spent years responding to commenters personally. I got to know some people and we had events where we showed that we were real people and went out on the lawns and people came and met us. So, yeah, I was really, really ambitious with it and had so much fun.
B&W: What was The Blue and White and Bwog’s relationship at the time you were here?
ES: We would typically go to both meetings. If there was a big Blue and White story, we would post it on Bwog. I wrote for The Blue and White as well. So it was pretty close.
B&W: What do you think your favorite piece was that you worked on while at Bwog either as editor or writer?
ES: I got really interested during my time at Columbia in how the University was kind of setting itself up to compete with an average graduate in 2012. It was a time where Stanford was kind of becoming a dominant university because the tech industry was exploding, and I feel like Columbia was kind of undergoing a sort of an existential crisis about the value of sticking to the Core Curriculum and being a liberal arts school, a liberal arts Ivy.
So I wrote one big story during my time at The Blue and White about Columbia’s future, and I spoke to a number of professors and really thought about how Bollinger was trying to push the school to be more competitive with the other big tech and science schools and how it was sort of this personality crisis for the school.
B&W: I saw excerpts of that piece online with Professor Delbanco. I actually took a class with him. He’s awesome. I feel like he’s still thinking about the same types of questions.
ES: Yeah, I doubt it’s resolved at all.
B&W: You were working on that piece, and then, at The Daily Beast you wrote a big piece about the Harvard mental health crisis. Do you feel like you were starting to sow the seeds of your interest in education journalism at that point?
ES: Oh, totally. You know, what’s interesting is that I have been an education reporter for 10 years, and I’ve always been interested in it, but I kind of stumbled into being an education reporter. It was somewhat random. My boss basically assigned it to me when I was at Politico on my first day of my job. And I was like “oh, that sounds great.” I hadn’t even thought about it. So it wasn’t necessarily what I was pushing for. But because I had spent so much time thinking about internal Columbia politics and some time at Harvard thinking about their mental health stuff (which obviously has just exploded for all universities in the last few years), it was a good fit. But it was actually kind of random.
B&W: What did it feel like when you started to narrow in on that beat at Politico and have this focus that you hadn’t had earlier? What was the difference there versus in your earlier positions?
ES: I had so much fun learning about the New York City public school system. You know, it’s the biggest school system in the country, it’s incredibly complex, [has] endless stories, and it was just kind of unraveling all these threads that I was really interested in. I spent years focused on the charter school movement in New York. I spent other years focused on issues of racial segregation in the public schools. I’ve now spent years looking at the lack of education in Hasidic Jewish private schools. I feel like there’s all these different parts of the system that I’ve come to really understand. I think the best thing that I did was try to know what was going on with everything, cover everything, but have areas of focus that I could really kind of dominate as a reporter, and I feel like that really paid off for me.
B&W: I am a history major and a minor in education studies and I also was a New York City public school student myself. And I’m really interested in thinking about issues of access and racial segregation in New York City public schools. I read your piece about the Upper West Side’s resistance to integration from 2016. I was wondering if we could talk a little bit about that, and the way that you think the landscape has changed and not changed since then.
What do you think the biggest obstacles are that we're looking at post-Covid when trying to integrate New York City schools? And how do you see white resistance playing out currently?
ES: It’s really interesting. I think in that time, maybe 2016 to 2019, there was a lot of momentum around thinking about solutions for integration, thinking about different ways that kids could access the city’s elite public high schools, and in some cases, elementary schools, in some districts across the city. I feel like that momentum has really stalled. There’s not much policy right now aimed at any kind of structural integration of this system. There are some districts that are continuing with small-scale, really interesting programs to integrate a collection of their elementary schools or middle schools. There hasn’t been a ton of progress on high schools generally, not just specialized high schools. And I do feel like the current mayor is just less interested, it’s not really a priority for him and his team. So I feel like that momentum has been really stalled in the last two, three years.
B&W: What do you see as the best ways to try and drum up momentum and get people thinking about integrating schools? I know that there’s been barriers to success with current attempts, like the District 15 plan, that have not created as much change as people were hoping for. How do you sort of convince people it’s still worth trying for?
ES: You know, I’m definitely not an activist. I feel my reporting is to point to research showing that integration, if done well, can be used as a school improvement plan. Obviously, there’s a lot of schools in New York City that are struggling or have fewer resources than others, and what has interested me most about the project of integration is that it’s a way to improve schools across the board.
But in terms of the activist movement, that’s kind of their business, I would say. But yeah, I think there was a lot of youth-led activism which was really interesting, and some of those groups are going through periods of recalibrating their strategies at the moment. So it’s just not that front and center.
B&W: In a broader scope, how would you characterize the role of journalists in the education reform landscape? What do your interactions look like if you are interacting with policymakers or activists while you're reporting? But also how do you think journalism and reporting itself plays a role in making change?
ES: I would say the most important thing for journalists is to understand that they are not
there to take a side or advance a certain narrative at the expense of another one. I think my interactions have been trying to deeply understand that there are so many very contentious and emotional debates in New York City education politics—charter schools are a great example–and I feel like what I’ve tried to do over the years is deeply understand both sides of a very polarized argument and try to highlight [them], both in profiles and features and investigative work, so that the reader has enough information to make up their own mind.
B&W: Absolutely. I’m interested in your coverage of the effects of Covid on schooling. During the pandemic a lot of deeply-entrenched problems with our schools, about homelessness, etc., as you as you reported on, were exposed and brought front and center. In a similar way to what you’re saying about the city losing momentum on integration, do you feel like some of those problems that you wrote about and that were being talked about during the height of the pandemic have since been sidelined?
ES: I do. I think there was this moment in a lot of parts of city life, not just education but certainly including the public school system, where people sort of thought this was a time to reimagine some aspects of the system that were stuck or broken or seemed really unfair. And I just think the problem is that the city also had to get everyone back into the school buildings, so the projects of simply reopening the schools safely and reimagining some core aspects of how the school system works was too much. Certainly for the former mayor and the current mayor, some people would call it a failure of imagination, but I also know from covering it firsthand that the actual work to just get the schools open again was completely, 100% consuming, and could have easily not happened as successfully as it did.
But I mean, listen, the kids are back, right? Schools are open, things are sort of back to normal, and there’s still really not conversations happening at [the] City Hall level about how to transform the system to make it fairer for kids. That’s definitely not happening. In fact, there’s not actually a ton of particularly notable policy coming from this administration at the moment. It’s still an early time in the life of this administration, but there’s not a lot going on that you could say “oh, wow,” this is really going to change how the system works.
B&W: Okay, so you’ve been writing mostly about Hasidic schools in the city these days. How did you initially land on that topic and what drew you to it? And also what has it been like to cover something in such a long term, unfolding way?
ES: Yeah, this has been very different for me because I kind of stepped off of the day-to-day work of the beat for a few years to really focus on this big investigative target. So I had been covering, for a few years, sporadically, complaints from former Yeshiva students who went to Hasidic schools that they really didn’t get an adequate education in English or math, and that they were basically learning exclusively religious texts in Yiddish all day, which seemed to violate state laws requiring every school to offer kids a basic secular education.
In late 2019, the City Department of Education had released a very long delayed report based on their investigation into these schools that found that only two of the 28 schools that they investigated were complying with state law and offering a basic secular education. The fact that the report was released right at the end of the year before Christmas, that city officials were very cagey about it, that the schools themselves were not named was very odd, and so I felt like the city was not being upfront about the full scope of what they found. I was a beat reporter, so I partnered with an investigative reporter, and I said, “let’s try to find out what’s actually happening in these schools and how much money they get from the government.” Because it’s completely unknown. We couldn’t figure it out, it wasn’t publicly available. So that kind of snowballed into a much bigger project as we talked to more and more people and realized that the schools were getting enormous sums of money from the government, much more than we had anticipated, and that the problems in the schools were much deeper than we had understood from our early reporting. There was corporal punishment going on, some kids were leaving school barely able to write or speak a sentence in English. The more we reported, the bigger the story got.
B&W: Working on a project that has so many different pieces: That’s an experience I feel like we don’t really have as student journalists here. While you’re doing the investigating, how do you get to a point where you decide for yourself, this is enough, this one piece of information, this part of the story, is enough for a piece itself, I’m gonna sit down and write now and send it out?
ES: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s always the risk that you can keep reporting forever, because there’s always a new source to meet or new documents to find. There was a lot there, but I think we reached a point where we had spoken to hundreds of people and we had become really familiar with a typical experience of a boy in the schools. We were hearing very, very similar stories to a point where we felt confident. We realized, okay, this is a clear, clear pattern of what’s happening. We’d also spoken to a number of people who had graduated very recently, or parents of kids who are currently in the schools, so we really felt confident that the lack of education, the corporal punishment, was happening in real time.
Once we felt like we had enough sources and that our sources were painting a clear picture for us, that our sources came from all different schools and weren’t connected to each other, and represented a really big swath of the Hasidic school system, that’s when we started to write.
B&W: So interesting. And while you’d been working on this piece, how much availability and mental space did you have to be thinking about other future projects or things that you want to work on on the side?
ES: I would say none. This has been my complete and singular focus for two and a half years.
B&W: And do you feel like after doing that you prefer this type of work to the more daily beat?
ES: It’s a good question. I think I would probably like a mix going forward. It’s hard to not be writing. It’s hard to miss news. You kind of see big stories going by as you’re working on this even bigger story. So I think I would like a mix of some longer term features and investigative stuff, but I don’t want to fully take my eye off a beat.
B&W: You landed on education sort of randomly, as you said. But what advice would you give to people graduating, having written for Bwog or The Blue and White, who feel like they do have a narrow focus and interest and want to go into journalism?
ES: I would actually caution against that in the early part of your career. I was a general assignment reporter for a year and a half when I left college, and just being able to write a lot of different types of stories is the best experience for becoming a beat reporter. You have to learn to write really quickly if you’re a beat reporter, as well. So you have to cover breaking news in order to do that. I wrote profiles, I wrote features. I think the best thing to do is write a lot of different types of stories before you narrow in on something. Just learn how to do this stuff.
B&W: I read your senior wisdom on the Bwog website: So first, as you were graduating, you warned the class of 2016 against preemptive nostalgia. I’m a graduating senior so that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about and feel like I’ve been a victim of, or maybe I haven’t resisted it enough. I’m wondering if that's advice that you still stand by. How would you advise that graduating seniors avoid it in the last weeks of college? What’s a better way to spend our time?
ES: I just feel like I had so much fun at the end. I mean, it’s very cliche advice. But I do think if you try to have fun, and not think about the fact that it’s all going to end and just be grateful for your time with your friends, I think that will probably do the trick.
B&W: Yes. That makes a lot of sense.
I want to know a little bit about your Lerner 555 Bat Mitzvah.
ES: So funny. Yeah. My dad is a professor at Columbia and we basically got a discount on using Lerner as a party space. And obviously, when I was 12, I wasn’t really thinking about the fact that it was a college space essentially, but it ended up being a really, really good place to have all my little 12-year-old friends. And, you know, it’s a nice building.
B&W: That’s so funny. I was picturing a Hillel-sponsored Bat Mitzvah while in college.
Anyway, I have really loved reading your pieces over the years. I feel like reading about education was the beginning of my interest in education reform.
ES: I think education is just an incredibly rich topic that it’s really hard to ever tire of, right?
You’re always reaching for better solutions, knowing that nothing will ever be perfect, that it’s really, really hard, if not impossible to vanquish inequality in the system, but there are so many ways to go about it, and to think about making things better for kids. So I think it’s very easy to fill a lifetime of work thinking about this. As a reporter, it’s just been an incredibly intellectually rigorous challenge for me. Writing [about] education and trying to think about both sides of every topic really pushed my thinking in ways that I hadn’t ever been before. Obviously at Columbia, you do some of that, but doing it in the real world was different for me and one of the things I’m most grateful for in my time covering education is how much it actually really did challenge my assumptions. I feel like that made my reporting a lot stronger.
West Lawn, Mostly by Sylvie Epstein
On April 12th, 2022, I tweeted: “wearing overalls, eating such a good apple, walking home at sunset to cook dinner after laying in the sun all day, bliss.”
Though I often ostentatiously, obnoxiously, and only semi-accurately brag about my ability to remember detailed interactions from moments passed, I can’t seem to conjure up the memory of a single Columbia night as I sit down this evening to reflect. What I remember—and will continue to remember—is the way Columbia stirs to life in the early days of spring. I will remember the way we seem to make an unspoken, yet collective decision to disregard our work and abandon our books in Butler. Over the last eight semesters, the main lawns (most often West, but sometimes East, if I feel like mixing it up) have been home to endless hours of conversation and just as many of silent company. I have sat with new friends from old clubs and old friends from old dorms. I have put faces to names and celebrated my dearest peers for their wonderful accomplishments. And, when I get up from the grass, it is not uncommon that I will stop at a store on my way home and buy myself an apple. Or a plum. But what occurs without fail, is that I leave satisfied. Without fail, it feels like bliss.
Missed Connections by Dominy Gallo
It was a difficult choice for a senior to make: two hours of a capella or an audited lecture on Sula in Schermerhorn. Off I went, predictably, novel in hand, while my friends wrestled their way into the College Walk crowd. I was sure Professor Marcus would finish on the dot and I’d make the 7:30 p.m. countdown if I ran. At 7:25, I picked up my phone to pull up my friends’ shared locations and saw a stream of messages: The trees had already been lit! Some were in John Jay getting milk for hot cocoa, others were walking up Broadway with booze, and I was in Scherm 614—not one of us was there. Still, after regrouping at the Sundial, we took picture after picture in every arrangement, chilled and smiling. My best friend and I pressed cold cheek to cold cheek. The photos look flustered, like the trees, which hadn’t shed in time, so the fairy lights strangled plumes of golden leaves, like so many fingerless gloves. Happy and haphazard, we gathered afterward in one of our suites in EC to write letters to our future selves. More people came, people we variously knew, and the hostess introduced us each to the filling-up room. Hushes fell in waves over the group as we wrote in reveries, messages to May. One by one, the hostess collected the sealed envelopes to tuck them away until graduation, when she’d pass them all back to us to read. Mine would languish on my desk unfinished until the spring semester because there, as I wrote, appeared my crush, the one I’d met at a Pride and Prejudice party in late summer. She sat down next to me to have a chat over red wine. There the notepad lay, ignored and in my hands, with that unfinished question scrawled: “Did you fall in love this term?” And the hasty caveat: “No pressure if not.”
In Between by Kelsey Kitzke
If there is one thing about me, it is that I believe in a completed narrative arc with my whole soul. In my ideal world, I walk through the Barnard gates as a nervous eighteen-year-old and exit four years later a confident twenty-two-year-old—a fully developed being ready to take on the world. How desperate I’ve been to think of something I could do, say, or remember to make things feel full circle. Four years ago, I thought that college would be a journey of perfected self-discovery. It certainly has been one of discovery in many ways—I’m unsure what kind of person I would be if I didn’t go to Barnard. But what I will most remember about this place and my time here is the feeling of being in between. Most often, literally being in between. Walking down Broadway on the first warm day of the year; running into friends in front of Diana and being late to class; meandering down Riverside in the cold to find an open swing because I am happy or sad or confused; rushing the corner of 110th and Broadway past the fruit stands of Westside to my friends’ apartment because I have good news or bad news or weird news. There are the stretches of Amsterdam where I’ve learned tenderness by holding my friends’ hands, joy when I’ve laughed so hard that I’ve almost peed myself, and stillness amid the city chaos. I’m less concerned now about perfectly deciphering the boundaries of myself as a means to understand what the future will be, and much more invested in the between.
Bomb Threat by Cole Cahill
I was filing documents into the professor’s Byzantine system of folders and cabinets in the windowless basement of Pulitzer Hall when my phone notified me that someone had called in a bomb threat to the building next door. The basement was probably a decent place to be if a bomb were to detonate, but unlike the professor and my fellow research assistants, I wasn’t taking any chances.
The house I lived in was just across 114th Street and probably would have been within the blast zone along with Pulitzer, but my housemates were congregating in the dining room to talk through our next move. Laughing, only a little nervously, Hanna said that we should maybe get off campus. I agreed. It just so happened that Chris, our non-CUID-holding housemate, needed to return a rental car to Chinatown. Five of us piled into the gray Corolla and missed our afternoon classes even though the threat was, in all likelihood, empty. Better safe than sorry.
Blasting music in a carful of friends is one of life’s pleasures we sacrifice to live in New York City, but that day, we shouted along to Teenage Dirtbag as we cruised down the FDR. We ate dumplings on Mulberry Street and tried on denim rhinestone NEW YORK snapbacks in souvenir shops. Between rows of Catholic ephemera in the E. Rossi store, an old man played “Ventura Highway” by America on an acoustic guitar. We heard that there was no bomb on campus after all, but we already knew that.
Ever since an email in March 2020 ejected me from my dorm room on a few days’ notice, the looming threat of crisis and upheaval at Columbia has never truly retreated; the other shoe seems eternally on the verge of dropping. My impulse to get the most from any given day, to lean into the chances for spontaneity, has been sharpened by the anxiety that they might be fleeting. I can’t think of a better way to live.
Sunset Crumbs by Eliza Rudalevige
I had just turned in my thesis and needed to touch grass after a solid week in Butler’s unmerciful wooden chairs. So I followed an impulse natural to every Columbia student once the weather hits sixty: I headed to the lawns. One by one, my friends gathered on my blanket, lured by the sweetness of the magnolias and the promise of Prosecco. As frisbees whizzed overhead, sometimes alarmingly close, we talked about everything but the possibility of departure. We debated which dining hall has the best salad bar (Ferris is the most consistent, but all bets are off when John Jay has giardiniera or kalamata olives). We waxed poetic on our seminar crushes, the quirks of our favorite professors, and the plight of a seventh-floor Hamilton class. As the stars began to peek through the dusky, darkening sky, we played Uno and chatted about the astrological traits of campus landmarks—Alma Mater is definitely a Virgo.
A little drunk and very content, I missed a talk by Eileen Myles at the Lenfest Center. I watched the international students smoke outside Butler instead, tiny ashy embers falling like sunset crumbs.
In “An American Poem,” Myles writes, “Do you know what the message of Western Civilization is? I am alone.” And they are right. My time here has been marked by loneliness as much as anything else, by wintry walks to and from class, by wooden cubicles, by meals for one, by frustration with the institution that planted these lawns. But in this moment, under the wayward frisbees, I am not alone—and for that, I am grateful.
All of It by Benjamine Mo
Often, at night, I have lingered mid-step on Low and gazed upon Butler glowing in its indeterminate distance, tried to capture its immensity within the bounds of my periphery—and failed. I am frustrated by the transience of its image in my head, the brevity of its imprint. Holding this quintessential sight of Columbia in this way convinces me that I’ve done all of it right, that I know this place, that I can make sense of my experience here completely just as it has contained four years of my life. When my foot places itself down to the step before me and I continue my walk, it all seems to slip away.
I made a promise to myself as a freshman to practice this act of looking across campus with intention and regularity, so that at this very moment—as a graduating senior—I might nostalgically run through the catalog of mid-step snapshots housed in my memory. But time is not so generous. They all blend into one, which feels empty. When I began this habit as a freshman, I was self-conscious of being seen standing still and staring for too long. Now, with the days counting away, I dwell in that position, motionless, for what feels like an interminable amount of time, which still feels not enough.
My point is: I am joyful, sad, and maybe a bit angsty, definitely uneasy. Last year, after a session of one of my beloved CSER courses, I confessed to my professor, a practicing psychologist outside of the classroom, that I was concerned about starting therapy—that I intellectualize things too frequently, losing sight of hard truths. She pressed her finger to my forehead: It’s not about what’s in here. She pressed her finger to my chest: It’s about what’s in here. It might seem banal, I get it. But now and then, when I’m all in my head, I feel the pressure of that touch shift toward my heart, and things start to make sense.
So when I think of Columbia, dear Columbia, and cannot pin down what it is I want to say about it, I perch myself on Low and contemplate the campus before me, awashed in my triumphs, regrets, everything in between. Inevitably, a smile overcomes me.
The Columbia State by Will Lyman
On Friday night, I vaulted over the fence on South Lawn and body-slammed the grass patch that twelve or so improv kids surrounded. They were probably doing charades or something; I didn’t linger.
It was the first hot day of the year and the lawns were swarming with sun-stunned Columbians, all giddy with mutual recognition: we’d survived the winter. Men I’d never seen before surrounded beer pong tables. My friend looked like a 90s starlet in the denim jacket I lent her. All around me, there was the hum of a night underway. I still had grass in my back pockets an hour later when I looked at the clouds that covered the stars and lamented that it hadn’t always been this fun, this easy.
Fear knows how to gnaw at me. On the lawns, I worried that I looked too stiff or too drunk. My friend—sullen, smoking next to Butler—said, “It’s all Virginia.” We often talk of Woolf, how she captured consciousness, the velocity and density of human emotion. I thought of Ellie Henderson’s coy, self-absorption at the dinner party in Mrs. Dalloway, how she refused to lay herself aside and join the party. I was no different.
I was hit with a great undiscovered affection for the years, the hours, left of our youth. I thought of Richard seeing Clarissa in the doorway as if for the first time. Everyone looked more beautiful than ever under the beady, bleeding light of the lawn lamp posts. They colored the grass like a football field, like a stage production. There it was.
Everybody’s Coming to My House by Tarini Krishna
I love the idea of an apartment party. While I adore crawling through the sidewalks of the Lower East Side, I didn’t have the energy to map out a bar-hopping extravaganza since my birthday was falling on the last day of spring semester finals. I had low expectations for the night, having assumed that few of my friends would show up given that they’d be eager to return home. Instead, a friend who had a spare key to my apartment traipsed through the door. In a matter of minutes, my floors were covered with balloons and the walls in streamers that lingered for a year. I received a text from my friend who had flown home earlier that week informing me that her flight had just landed, just in time to make the party. The music was a perfect mix of hyperpop and Kate Bush, and someone had brought a bottle of Ancho Chile Liqueur that was adding a bite to my drink. I didn’t know I could hold a smile for so long.
As the clock neared midnight, my brother grabbed a bottle of champagne and asked a friend to take a photo of us together.
Right as the camera flash went off, I was showered with champagne. Happy 21st.
Midnight Memories by Briani Netzahuatl
Five shots of tequila, a cup of Minute Maid Berry Punch, and a Mango and Lime-a-Rita for the road. Despite it being 40 degrees outside, I skipped down College Walk in my thin dress, the false warmth coursing through my veins. It was Dirty Thursday at House of Yes—Rihanna night. She had performed at the Super Bowl that Sunday. My friends and I, all twelve of us, crowded onto the 1, counting heads before collapsing onto the shiny plastic seats. A tallboy popped out of a Morton Williams bag and was shared between hands as the train swished on the tracks. We somehow managed to transfer to the 2, then the L, all the while snapping blurry .5 photos. After emerging from the Jefferson Ave stop, we rushed to get into line, phones in hand with our tickets ready.
As soon as we entered, I beelined towards the bathroom. I remember the pure silliness staring back at me in the mirrored walls, which I see now in the countless pictures I have—mid-laugh, sunglasses on, hugging my friend as we feigned surprise, puckered our lips, and smiled. We funneled into the crowd, locking hands as the pounding beats engulfed us. The disco ball spun above, barely illuminating the faces around me—I was surrounded by my friends on all sides, screaming along to Rihanna’s immaculate discography, dancing beneath the colored lights, swaying together. One shared Uber ride and Hooda Halal chicken gyro later, and I was back in my Woodbridge double.
This wasn’t my first or last time at House of Yes, nor was it my first outing with these friends nnor the last time I’d find myself drunkenly transferring trains. It was, however, the first time I’d felt the pang of longing for a time that had barely passed, of missing friends that were right there, close enough to touch, which I knew wouldn’t always be the case. Nights like this aren’t always extraordinary, but therein lies their beauty and novelty. There’s a liberating joy in simply being with close friends, knowing that regardless of what lies ahead, nothing matters more than where you are right now.
Halloween Nights by Sadia Haque
My parents never let me go to a Halloween parade despite growing up in Queens and having access to one only a few minutes walk from my house. They’d drag the whole family to Rockefeller Center to look at the giant Christmas tree and cook a whole turkey for Thanksgiving, but Halloween was the one holiday my immigrant parents could never embrace. When I came to college and gained more independence from my parents, I decided that I would find a group of friends to go downtown and watch the Halloween parade in Greenwich. As luck would have it, my first-year friend-group all seemed taken with the idea and we made our way downtown on Halloween night. We were all dressed up in the most clichéd costumes, from a black cat to a witch to a very clever “e-boy,” and excited to see our first-ever NYC Halloween parade.
I don’t remember much from the night—brief flashes of my friends getting tipsy from the wine one of their parents gifted them and our determination to find an ice-cream shop of which we had all heard but couldn’t remember the name. I remember being dragged down street corners and pushed on top of metal barricades to get a better view of the parade going by. I remember holding on to my friends as we maneuvered our way through the closed off streets to find a subway station to bring us back to campus. I remember thinking how lucky I was to find this group of people who I could break all my parents' rules with. I remember feeling so hopeful.
Then the pandemic happened, and I had to move back in with my parents. I tried to stay in touch with the friends I had made, but I had known them for months and the pandemic went on for years. Coming back, I ran into the people that I had thought would become my closest friends and gave them a passing hello. I made new friends and became more comfortable in who I am, and I decided that maybe my parents were not as unreasonable in their choices as I made them out to be at 18. I rarely think about that Halloween night, but I recall it now in all its ephemeral glory and rejoice. I don’t know where I will be in the coming years after Columbia, I don’t know how many of my friends I will stay in contact with as my four years come to an end, but I know that the memories I made here, the home I built—as fleeting as it may be—is worth remembering and celebrating even years after it has ended.
Thursday Night by Madeleine Hermann
Grow Your Vision
Welcome visitors to your site with a short, engaging introduction.
Double click to edit and add your own text.
Conor Skelding (1992-2023)
Illustration by Oonagh Mockler
We mourn the loss of our dear friend and former Blue and White editor-in-chief Conor Skelding who died on April 21, 2023 at age 31. He was a mentor to many generations of Blue and White editors and leaves a legacy at Columbia and beyond of relentless commitment in his reporting, to challenging power, and uncovering truth.
A singular presence on campus, Conor was a fount of institutional memory and led the revival of WikiCU and the first Wikithon. He was ruthless in his investigations of the administration, student leaders, and long-standing campus institutions—including Greek Life, Athletics, and the Senior Societies—but never failed to see the virtue in those he covered. He was both a true realist and someone who held others—and especially himself—to high standards, largely because he saw their potential.
We celebrate his immense contributions to the magazine and Columbia by reprinting the last three Editor’s letters he wrote to introduce the magazine. They capture some of his spirit and remain as wise and true today as they were ten years ago.
Letter From the Editor
Here is the letter I almost wrote, in brief:
“This summer I visited another college, and its campus wasn’t nearly as graceful as ours, which is pleasingly rational and rectilinear and was designed by McKim, Meade & White.”
So I won’t go there, despite this being the Orientation issue and probably the best time of year for mawkishness. Instead I will be “negative,” and offer the Class of 2017 one piece of advice.
By the end of last spring, some vital stuff in me had been replaced by bile. Accordingly, I fled Columbia's toxic miasma of triple-irony, feigned academicism, and narcissistic self-effacement, of which I had regrettably become a particle. I spent the summer working in what the weatherman unfailingly called the “heart of Arkansas.”
A month into my sequestration in a dry county surrounded by dry counties, some Columbia friends stopped by on a road trip. Drinking late into Tuesday morning, we zealously and capriciously debated our ideals, each contending that only he had a claim to the word “ideal” at all (except for one dirty pragmatist). It’d been a while since I’d had one of those, and I overdid it.
The next morning, as my indolent friends snored in my living room, I swallowed two Advils and two electrolyte tablets and went to what would be a long morning.
That afternoon, after my head cleared up, I realized that I was more exhausted from our spirited debate than our drinking.
Last spring, too much of that sort of strain had worked up mental calluses to the point that I never let my defenses down. I know I am not the only one who, having carelessly introduced an idea into a conversation, has felt strangely and not-quite-consciously compelled to defend it to the death of the conversation. After all, retraction or modification would amount to surrender.
2017, that pressure is stimulating. It is what makes Columbia so worthwhile, and too little of it will render your undergraduate years spiritless and cold. But too much can make you no fun at all.
—Conor Skelding (September 2013)
To the future campus reporter:
Thorough research will set you apart from your competitors. Knowing how to search a physical archive, request public records from government agencies, or even just use Google cache and site searches will turn up valuable information that the casual Google search will not. (Thorough research will also set you apart from your classmates, many of whom lean too heavily on JSTOR and the like.)
-Conor Skelding, Bwog Senior Wisdom (May 20, 2014)
Letter From the Editor
It’s fall, and we’ve settled in. We have so many weekly CourseWorks posts or problem sets to do. We spend too many of our Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights out (or too few). We get worked up about minor campus scandals and Columbia sporting events (if we care about those sorts of things).
Since it is November, we’ve put up new names on our masthead and taken down the old ones. (Soon I’ll be off it.) But every college group turns over quickly. It is probably pretty trite to think that as a senior, but it is still a revelation to me. (It hit me when in a recent email a Bwog alum addressed me as “Young Conor,” a nickname I haven’t been called since freshman year.)
When e-boards and rosters turn over so quickly, groups rise and fall precipitously. The one-time student council representative who pressured administrators to change a college-wide policy is replaced by a résumé-stuffing bootlicker.
(One undergraduate administrator confides that she doesn’t take even those serious students too seriously, since they’ll soon graduate.) So the geography of campus never settles. The must-read publication is this or that (or the other). The ’Stend becomes Havana Central at the West End. Even the century-old buildings’ names are changed when a new donor or poorly-followed donation agreement presents itself.
Nevertheless, this magazine believes that an essentially Columbian spirit survives this turnover. The Blue and White exists to promulgate (and thereby propagate) that.
—Conor Skelding (November 2013)
Letter From the Editor
At Columbia, it’s easy to tell who we want to be.
See: the tweedy academics-in-training, groutfitted athletes, chain smoking internationals, boat-shoed fraternity brothers, outré hipsters, Barbour-wearing preps, etc.
I ran into an acquaintance from freshman year the other day. We hadn’t spoken since 2010. “What are you studying?” I asked, by way of small-talk (figuring by strong chin that he studied economics).
“Econ,” he said. He’s got an offer from a bank. “You?”
“English,” I replied, before we both paused: “Oh, cool, yeah.”
We live in our in-groups. We share a suite, or a fraternity house, or a Spec office, where we can ignore whatever group stands against ours. We run around in circles, and those circles rub elbows at 1020 or Beta or Mel’s.
(That’s one very different thing about first semester. We haven’t yet fully created our college selves, and so we aren’t automatically prejudiced against others. I enjoy spending time with my freshman year friends—and if I met them today, we probably wouldn’t be friends.)
But that’s not what I care about now. Of course we dress and think like our friends, and gather in the same places. What I’m concerned about is after graduation.
Because now, when I come upon the pre-professional whose contract is already signed, sealed, and delivered at JP Morgan—and he comes across me, thinking I don’t know what—we do hate one another a little bit.
But we have to be civil: we’re both students here. We were both in Butler last night—we have some stuff in common, even if ideologically we’re anathemic. Even if we talk shit about one another in our groups, we still are part of a community here.
So we nod, “Oh, cool, yeah.” Here, the econ major and the gender studies major usually have the decency to appear to take one another seriously. After graduation, once we’ve really self-sorted, this won’t be so.
— Conor Skelding (December 2013)