Blue Notes, September 2020
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Back Issues & Used Tissues
The backdrop to my first-year experience was wallpapered in New York magazine back issues and used tissues—and no, this is not a reference to some strange choice in dorm decor. In a lot of ways, Columbia’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) waiting rooms became more familiar to me than my own dorm. There, I scrolled through social media, plowed my way through boxes of Kleenex, and, in the process, figured out what to do with myself during this new phase of my life.
For years, Columbia had been the light at the end of my tunnel, but once I finally started my first year, I realized that I had never really considered what would happen next: how I would feel, what would motivate me—how to cope, really. Despite my romanticized notions of New York City and Columbia University, when I actually set foot on campus at the beginning of NSOP, things did not “click” in the way I had expected they would. Much to my chagrin, my struggles with my mental health had not magically disappeared just because I had started my freshman year of college. In fact, on the other side of the country with little to no support system in place, my mental health continued to decline.
Illustration by Mwandeyi Kamwendo
For the first few weeks, I chalked it up to homesickness—an emotion that I hadn’t expected to feel but, still, in my mind, a “normal” reaction to beginning school three thousand miles away from home. In truth, it was a mixed bag; yes, I missed my family, but that wasn’t the only thing contributing to my deteriorating mental state. The issues I had continually disregarded as I prioritized my academics in high school were increasingly difficult to ignore. As time passed, it became clear that whether I was experiencing adjustment issues or something more, I needed to make a change. With CPS, it felt like help was finally within my reach.
Making the decision to seek mental health treatment was not an instantaneous cure—hence the carousel of waiting rooms I recall from dozens of appointments with my therapist and psychiatrist—but it did drastically alter the course of what could have been an even more challenging freshman year. That collage of tissues and New York magazines wasn’t what I had in mind for beginning my undergraduate career, but it’s what I needed: to take the time to confront my depression and figure out how to be a functioning human being. CPS is not the answer for everyone, but it was an integral part of my journey to “okay” and my transition to college life.
In Search of Community
My first few months as a low-income student at Columbia were spent navigating a heavy dose of culture shock. I met students with publicly available net worths for the very first time. I ate my first lobster. I picked sides on boarding school rivalries. The novelty of these experiences was fun and exciting but, at first, very isolating. With time, I began to form my own community of fellow first-generation, low-income (FGLI) students who understood the difficulty of this transition. With them, my feelings of inadequacy and confusion were transformed into moments of humor and connection. While incoming students might not have the luxury of a physical campus, it is still completely possible, and perhaps more crucial than ever, to build a community that can relate to and offer guidance for these experiences.
Illustration by Mwandeyi Kamwendo
If you’re a low-income student living off-campus for the semester, I’d recommend keeping an eye out for events from the Columbia Quest Scholars Chapter and the Columbia First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, student organizations created to be supportive spaces for FGLI students. Check their Facebook pages every once in a while and attend some Zoom events. There’s a lot of comfort in sitting in the company of people experiencing the newness of elite spaces with you, even if it’s through a computer screen. I would also check in with Columbia’s First-in-Family Programs (FiF); they regularly schedule both social and informative events geared toward FGLI students.
If you can, reach out to your older peers. The upperclassmen I’ve met in the FGLI community have pointed me to countless resources and opportunities. Many of them had experiences similar to my own and survived to tell the tale. If you like a structured approach, FiF offers a peer mentoring program for first-generation students, and the Odyssey Mentoring Program gives students the ability to connect directly with FGLI alumni. If not, just be observant and listen carefully to what your peers share in your clubs and classes. You’re bound to run into fellow FGLI students everywhere. Don’t be afraid to connect and reach out. Every FGLI student I’ve ever met has been eager to have a good conversation and offer their individual wisdom.
Keep in mind, however, that at the end of the day, you are always your biggest advocate. There are countless opportunities that aren’t well-advertised by the Columbia administration if you’re patient and diligent enough to look for them. If you’re offered funds for cold-weather clothing, take them. If you think you could use the Dean’s Assistance Fund, don’t overthink your reason. Apply for it! That’s money that’s been allocated specifically for you. If you’re having trouble getting in touch with the Columbia administration, pester them with emails and phone calls until you get what you need. It’s not embarrassing. No one will be angry. Do what you have to do to get your needs met.
Above all, go into the year with the mindset that you are deserving. You deserve support, you deserve understanding, and no matter what, you deserve to be here.
In a city already strapped for real estate, maintaining six feet of distance can feel like navigating a laser maze. New Yorkers like me are used to finding ourselves spatially challenged, inhabiting apartments the size of postage stamps and packing ourselves like sardines into sweaty subways. But quarantine in a cubicle is a tall order, even for the most compact among us, and our streets are so narrow that I have had to walk into oncoming traffic to stay outside of the six-foot radii of mask-clad dog-walkers. Luckily, after six months on lockdown, I have learned the secret to responsibly enjoying this beautiful city so you don’t have to.
The answer? Parks. New York City is full of them, and each and every one is beautiful in its own way, not to mention spacious. If you’re in need of a fresh air fix, strap on your mask and walk (carefully!) until you reach something green. Those of us in the Columbia area are flanked by Riverside and Morningside, both impeccable options. In the outer boroughs, Prospect Park and Pelham Bay Park offer pristine and peaceful atmospheres.
Illustration by Mwandeyi Kamwendo
Among the city’s many pockets of greenery, my go-to has been Central Park, an unoriginal but reliable spot. For a tranquil stroll or invigorating jog, I always make my way to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, mesmerizingly beautiful at sunset, when the lush and changing purple sky reflects across still water. If I’m lucky, when I take peaceful walks around the Pond, I see watercolor painters positioned along the path through the flowers. For a self check-in, I head to Bethesda Fountain, where I can meditate to the sound of running water; afterward, I’ll stroll around the Lake and, if it’s free, camp out in Wagner Cove to watch the birds. To read, I’ll lay my picnic blanket on the Great Lawn, next to Turtle Pond, and watch the sun peek out from behind Belvedere Castle. For a special treat, I’ll sit in the Shakespeare Garden or the underappreciated Conservatory Garden to smell the flowers (through my mask, of course). For a yoga session, I’ll find a spot beneath the trees near Sheep’s Meadow or a quiet patch of grass near the Conservatory Water, which we called the “Duck Pond” growing up.
These sylvan oases offer much-needed respite from the close quarters of small apartments and dorms, with enough expansive space to distance responsibly. I have visited Central Park almost every day since quarantine began: in running shoes, with a yoga mat slung over my shoulder, with a picnic blanket and a good book, with my dog. For all the braggadocio that comes with proclaiming myself a “city kid,” I have found that my daily trips to the verdant green and wide sky of the park have been the only thing keeping me from losing my mind. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Will They Notice I’m Not Wearing Pants?
Few things in the socially distanced age feel as futile as the Zoom date. That being said, the combination of my weakness for internet trends and my borderline masochistic love of first dates swept me into the dizzying world of COVID dating. The production is comical: having strategically placed my stuffed animals behind a pillow, I sit alone in my childhood bedroom wearing a strappy lace top, sipping a cocktail my mom made me. By the scheduled date time, I’ve already downed three martinis; how else am I supposed to muster the courage to click the ever-so-daunting “Join Meeting” button?
The date ends up being quite comforting. There is something surprisingly beautiful about meeting a stranger in the familiarity of your childhood home. We spend the date sending new Zoom links, lamenting the energizing buzz of a city restaurant, and showcasing our mediocre new quarantine hobbies. Our shared longing for Columbia’s campus and the spontaneity of pre-pandemic life becomes the theme of our relationship. Perhaps it’s our entire relationship—a way to hold on to a semester lost, an intoxicating distraction akin to the perfect night out.
Illustration by Rea Rustagi
But there is a transience to this new connection that doesn’t disappear by the second, or even the fifth date. In some unspoken agreement, our increasingly short FaceTime dates fizzle into a week completely devoid of contact. The way it all ends feels eerily similar to our forced departure from campus in March, a sobering reminder that this fling was never about each other and always about what we both lost—four hopelessly romantic years at Columbia.
Couples who were once separated by the distance between Ruggles and Plimpton are now separated by oceans. First-years who dreamed of finally coming out or exploring their sexuality cannot. Days spent inching closer to the cutie in your Fro Sci class have been stalled indefinitely.
This tale isn’t a eulogy for what could have been, but a call for what can be done during a pandemic. As romantic as pre-COVID Columbia is—or at least as I’ve remembered it to be—I’ve grown to realize that love and intimacy aren’t unattainable in a world where a Tinder hookup is a public health crime.
The pandemic has forced me to spend time loving myself and to lean into the feelings I was avoiding with flirty Zoom distractions. I wish I had a three-step plan—“Say affirmations! Post a makeup-free selfie! Buy a sex toy!”—for successfully practicing self-love, but there’s no universal solution. What I can tell you is that by giving myself the same attention I would normally give a crush, I’ve finally begun to embrace my sexuality and treat myself with the same kindness I so willingly give others. “Dating” myself has been beautifully intimate and shockingly rewarding.
I eagerly await the day we can once again have picnic dates on Low Steps, cover hickeys before class, eat Nussbaum bagels in bed with a new fling, and have brownstone makeout sessions. But for now, I’m sticking to loving myself.