Updated: Feb 28, 2021
Columbia’s global WeWork spaces foster quasi-communities.
By Chloe Kok.
For an international first-year student like me, virtual Columbia is lonely. At home in Singapore, 13 hours ahead of Eastern Time, I usually sit alone in front of the computer screen and watch my classes asynchronously. Any semblance of college life ceases to exist when the Zoom meeting ends. While I didn’t expect to make friends during this virtual semester, a few weeks into the year, the reality of starting college alone at home hit me hard. Every day became a monotonous routine: wake up, study, attend classes on Zoom at night, sleep, repeat. And with my neighbors renovating their home, my environment hasn’t exactly been conducive to studying.
So when Columbia announced the opening of seven new Columbia-dedicated global WeWork locations that students can access for free, I was excited to learn that Singapore was among them. All I wanted was a quiet environment where I could hammer out papers without the constant noise of drilling and knocking.
“These are communal spaces designed to make your study experience as comfortable and enriching as possible, and where you will have additional opportunities to create connections and memories with your fellow students and share in the spirit and dynamism of the Columbia community,” Professor Safwan M. Masri, Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development, wrote in a statement addressed to international students on October 2. Interested in exploring what the space had to offer and desperate to find a reprieve from the commotion at home, I decided to pay my local facility a visit a week after it opened.
The first thing I noticed was the office’s spaciousness. Walking past the common area, which had sofas and a pantry stocked with water and coffee, and into the actual study space, I marveled at the rows of wooden tables and ergonomic chairs arranged neatly in a large, open room. Several glass-paneled conference rooms lined the corridors, each fitted with a whiteboard and a conference display screen. More than anything, however, the space felt impersonal. With its plain decor and office-like structure, it looked like its main priority was for students to hit the books.
This also seems to be the case for other facilities. Wendy Sung, BC ’23, who visited the Columbia-dedicated WeWork in Shanghai, said, “Because it is such a big space and has so many rooms, people tend to pick different rooms from you so you tend to be in separate rooms. The architecture doesn’t really create a sense of community.” The space in Singapore felt the same—impressive, but quite intimidating.
The free WiFi, hot water, tea, and coffee, however, were huge positives. “The WiFi at WeWork is so much better than the one I’ve got at home,” said Felipe Couto, SEAS ’23, who uses the facilities in Rio de Janeiro. Free printing was also a plus, he noted.
I took a seat near the front of the space, one of many at a long table. Throughout the day, students came and did their work. From time to time, I glanced up, scanning the faces in the room. It felt strange to suddenly see other Columbia students outside of their tiny Zoom boxes. One of the aims of this initiative was to “create connections and memories,” but as an introvert, I could not pluck up the courage to approach students and introduce myself, and I was afraid to disturb busy peers. Instead, I stared at my computer, submerging myself in the many lectures I had to catch up on.
Despite the lack of social interaction on my first day, I found the environment and its amenities advantageous for studying and decided to frequent it over the following week. I soon recognized some of the regulars. We still did not say hi to one another, but the tacit acknowledgment in our brief shared gazes provided a strange feeling of solidarity, as if we were saying, “I don’t know you, but I know you.” When most of my college life is spent over Zoom, these small in-person interactions provided unexpected comfort. I sometimes imagined that I was on campus, studying at one of the many Columbia libraries that I have yet to enter.
My first spoken interaction happened by chance. Knee-deep in an essay about Long Day’s Journey Into Night one day, I was interrupted by a hesitant voice. “Hey, do you happen to have a power plug I could borrow?” I looked up, mildly surprised from actually being spoken to. I recognized him—he came two or three times a week and often sat at the table across from me.
“Yeah, sure, ” I stuttered, pulling out my power plug from my bag and handing it to him. “I’m Chloe, by the way,” I added quickly. He smiled and introduced himself as Ambrose, a sophomore transfer student in General Studies studying Economics and Data Science. We quickly developed a friendly rapport.
Compared to structured virtual networking events, the space offered a different sense of freedom—I was free to introduce myself and get to know people if I wanted, but there was never a need to commit to purposeful socialization. If things got awkward, there was always the safety net of heading back to my seat to finish my assignment. Instead of having to intentionally reach out to people, I could just say “hi” to a student walking past me in the space—something much more manageable. As the weeks went by, I realized that through such fortuitous interactions, I got to know people — who they were and their stories — even if the connections formed were not exactly deep friendships.
Luna Wang, CC ’23, recalled making new connections with other students in one of the Beijing facilities. “At first, I went to WeWork with one of my best friends,” she said. “He is part of the Global China Connection club, so he introduced me to his other club members. Starting from that, we just work and have lunch together.”
“Socially, I’ve met new acquaintances,” added J. J. Shaw, CC ’22, who goes to the Singapore facility three to four times a week. “Meeting at a shared space has been very helpful.” For Shaw, the facility is also a space that can facilitate pre-professional networking: For example, there was a student mixer organized by the Singapore Students Association in November that encouraged students to interact with one another at the facility.
“The facility is open to all graduate students, and I’ve had the chance to connect with students from the Columbia Business School, as well as the Teachers College,” Shaw continued. “I’ve never really had this chance before.”
On a day to day basis, my interactions differed depending on who used the space. One day, I would marvel at a fellow first-year student’s dedication to stay up until 4:00 a.m. to take a midterm, and on another, I would ask an upperclassman about his part-time job as a COVID-19 swab tester. Once, I talked to a student about his life in New York exploring the city before the pandemic hit. Through these fragments of conversation, I pieced together my own version of a Columbia student life—one that was not just defined by the monotony of nightly Zoom classes, but by the stories of my peers. Each student I came across had unique experiences—some were still exploring majors, while others were balancing finance internships with a full course load —but our common threads brought us a welcome sense of camaraderie.
As Wang put it, “I met some people who I was already acquaintances with last year but didn’t have a close connection to, and spending time with them in WeWork, especially during this difficult time, is a nice bonding experience.”
Sometime during the semester, a slight feeling of sadness creeped up on me. The Columbia WeWork subscription ends on December 23, the last day of the semester, and future plans for the spaces have not been announced. WeWork’s current precarious position as a company hardly assuages my anxiety: “You couldn’t pick a company that was more impacted by Covid-19 than WeWork,” an investment banker told The Guardian in March. “They broke the golden rule,” he said. “They have fixed costs for a long time while their customers can cancel their contracts. They are just going to go to straight cash-burn mode.”
Without the space, I wonder if the connections I made, mostly through chance encounters, will be sustained. With some of my friends planning to head back to New York for the spring semester and others staying in Singapore, no one really knows what the next few months will look like.
“It’s scary if Columbia closes the WeWork space because, while I don’t use it every day, it’s always nice to have a facility in case you want to meet people and work together,” Wang said. She is optimistic, however, that she will stay connected to the friends she made there: “We’re all from Beijing, so I feel like this identity in itself can already sustain this connection.”
As I reached this topic during my interview with Shaw, I looked at him with some resignation. Shaw was not only an interviewee but also a friend I had made at WeWork. He plans to fly back to New York in the spring. Recalling some of our more interesting conversations that happened spontaneously at the facility, I started wondering if we would stay in touch post-WeWork. “Do you think that you will still stay connected with the people you met at WeWork when you eventually go back on campus?” I asked. He glanced at me and replied, “Yeah, I would definitely say that these connections will remain in place and I will definitely meet the friends that I’ve made here in the future when I’m back on campus. And when that happens, I’ll have the space to thank for.”
Perhaps it was the matter-of-fact decisiveness of his answer that made me realize that even though the connections I made here at WeWork may fade as the semester comes to an end, they will still remain friendly faces. It will likely require more effort to arrange meetups without the convenience of meeting by chance at the facility. But if there is anything I have learned interacting with those at WeWork, it is that the extra step it takes to stay connected will likely be completely worth it.
At the end of the day, WeWork, perhaps quite obviously, could not replicate a true on-campus experience. What it did provide, however, were casual connections that accumulated into a tangible sense of community built on shared understanding and experience. Passing complaints about having to stay up till 6 a.m. to take a quiz, checking in on one another to see how the problem set is going — these small moments remind me that I am not alone in this isolating time. Depending on what happens after this semester, I will perhaps feel a slight sense of loss, but as a first-year student, the feeling of Columbia being more than Zoom is something that will likely stay with me long after the space ceases to exist.
Styvalizh Uribe contributed additional reporting.