Updated: Feb 15, 2021
By Benjamine Mo
Ours is a community of change. As our institution contends with the existential threats of disease and dispersal, student leaders are reimagining Columbia as a series of communities mobilized to respond, adapt, recover. Amidst the confusion of transition—in University, national, and global politics—Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) Student Body President and former International Student Representative Joon Baek, CC ‘20, has proven to be an agent of the kind of proactive, student-driven change that’s more vital than ever.
While I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting Baek once before, I am immediately reminded of his geniality when he appears on screen with a familiar grin during our mid-October video call. Judging by the view of a Midtown street out the window behind him, Baek is back in New York City. Yet despite the expected clamor of the urban jungle, the virtual space we meet in is hospitably serene, as if beckoning our conversation—undoubtedly due in part to his approachability.
I begin with a simple inquiry: Why student council? Baek takes a moment to reply. As he looks away to formulate his response, he traverses time—it’s been five years since Baek first stepped foot on campus as a freshman—to identify the impetus for this journey. After returning from nearly two years of military service in South Korea between his freshman and sophomore years, Baek found himself estranged from the first-year communities to which he once belonged—communities that had, quite organically, changed in his absence. Presented with the opportunity to engage with the student body anew, Baek turned to community-building as a way to address the difficulties faced by international students such as himself in acclimating to life at Columbia. Friends urged him to join CCSC as International Student Representative. Baek graciously emphasizes his gratitude for their support, which he warmly reiterates more than once. Ultimately, Baek’s bid for the role came down to a pivotal realization—it was, he says, “a position I can actually be passionate about.”
Representing an international student community that has endured dispersion, failed diplomacy, and the malicious whims of a xenophobic federal government seems to demand this passion—that is, the vital combination of tenacity and savvy that it takes to devote oneself to advocacy. And it seems that Baek’s got it. When I ask him about the pivotal moments of his time in his representative capacities, Baek first expresses his genuine appreciation for all of the experiences he’s had thus far. But what most immediately comes to mind are the events of the past summer, specifically ICE’s “whole fiasco on revoking [international] students’ visas if they didn’t come back to the U.S.” International students residing in the U.S., Baek explains, faced deportation if classes were held entirely online. He recalls the day that ICE announced the new restrictions on student visas. “I woke up and all my international friends reached out and asked me ‘Joon, have you seen this?’” Baek chuckles as he tells me this, perhaps in reaction to the absurdity of the proposed policy or perhaps out of relief that it didn’t take effect. Regardless, it’s clear that the memory of this panic remains distressing, to say the least.
I remember this same confusion among my own friends who found themselves at risk of deportation. Many found solace in two emergency international student town halls, organized by Baek to clarify needs and determine next steps, and generously open to international students from any university. Baek was vocal in his advocacy for international students, and although he never anticipated any claim to fame for his role, he admits: “Speaking with the Attorney General—that was a highlight of my class council experience.” Most of all, however, Baek remains inspired after engaging with the international student community, having walked away with an understanding of “not only how diverse the student body is at Columbia,” but the “many voices Columbia students have.” He recalls with admiration, perhaps gratitude, that “people weren’t being defeatist—people were figuring out ways to petition.” As he recounts these events, Baek seems proud—not out of disproportionate self-regard (trust me, this would be wholly uncharacteristic)—but out of an unshakable respect for his constituents.
Baek was elected Student Body President in May. In this new capacity, he and the rest of the CCSC Executive Board find themselves in constant negotiations with Columbia College administration to reconcile students’ ever-changing predicaments with the University’s attempts to maintain routine college operations. Without chipping the inscrutable polish of a politician, Baek explains that this is no small feat. It’s clear that he looks toward the future with both resolve and a pragmatic awareness of the hurdles still left to be cleared. “One of the things we tried to change was we tried to change the academic policy when it came to a lot of class situations, to extend the drop deadline, class withdrawal deadline, and the pass/fail deadline for a lot of classes,” he says. “The CC deadline [to drop Fall full-term courses] already passed last week—SEAS is in November.” In response to student concerns, Baek offers reassurance. “Our board is trying to change that.”
CCSC has already begun finding ways to engage students in this new virtual format–an initiative that Baek argues has been successful. This has included proposing “a mutual aid fund, so that students could support each other and people who need resources and mobilize Student Council to help those students,” Baek tells me. Looking ahead, he predicts that “November will be a very chaotic and tumultuous period when a lot of people will be going through a lot of difficulties because of what is happening nationally.” Baek speaks with a slight, consolatory grin—what seems to be a tendency of his. He and the CCSC Executive Board will advocate tirelessly for increased flexibility, realizing that, as Baek puts it, “considering all this is happening, we should at least try to make wiggle room for our academic lives.”
Illustration by Lilly Cao
Although our community is in flux, Baek suggests that these inevitable changes can force us to grow–depending how we choose to respond. Aren’t we all just trying to make the best out of this chaos? As graduation approaches and the world—an oyster, although perhaps a bit caught in the mud for now—opens up to him, Baek maintains a relentless and imaginative optimism in spite of the murky future. As for what’s to come, career-searching and the like, Baek tells me matter-of-factly, “I still do have those sorts of self-doubt.” But, as we all know too well, he notes that he’s come to terms with the fact that “things change.” In fact, he’s found solace in “admitting these insecurities.” As we conclude our conversation, Baek does not abandon that reassuring grin he’s maintained for much of our call, a grin that reflects a mantra Baek tells me he has recently acquired. It’s one I’d say is vital to have, that I remind myself of now too: “I have confidence that whatever path I may take, one way or another, it will lead to something good.”