by Vivien Sweet
There is an uncanny preference for the acronym at Barnard. Within the CCIS, the Consortium for Critical Interdisciplinary Studies, a Barnard student can select one of four academic pathways, including ICORE/MORE, the Interdisciplinary Concentration on Race and Ethnicity and the Minor on Race and Ethnicity. (The other three are EHMC, F/ISTS, and NAIS.) Acronyms, evidently, beget acronyms.
I can’t say I was surprised when Mariame Sissoko, BC ’24, asked that we meet at the offices of SLC and SGA, the Student Leadership Collective and the Student Government Association. As President of SGA, they spend most of their days under the office’s bright, fluorescent lights, with muffled strains of Troye Sivan blasting from Liz’s Place.
Sissoko themself prefers to stay out of the limelight as much as the SGA President of Barnard can. On my way to meet them, I happened across one of their friends, who teasingly calls Sissoko “Madame President” due to their around-the-clock commitment to ensuring that the SGA’s more notable initiatives, such as the Binder Drive, come to fruition. When I mentioned this appellation to Sissoko, they merely blushed.
Still, their reputation does indeed precede them. Sissoko co-founded projects that I had heard of even before I came to Columbia, like the 116th Initiative, a grassroots mutual aid collective that redistributes wealth to supplement students who are struggling to pay tuition, rent, medical bills, and other living expenses. As an FGLI student, Sissoko quickly assessed that Barnard would not be able to support them financially if they were to get into a car accident, for instance. “You can't preach about having low income students on this campus and then not give them the resources to exist on this campus,” they told me. “Education is, quote unquote, the great equalizer, but not really.” Hence why they co-founded the 116th Initiative: to help remedy the financial inequalities that Barnard inherently perpetuates.
Sissoko has long been critical of Barnard’s misguided attempts to address the systemic inequity that permeates the institution. In their freshman fall, they joined a boycott of the then-mandatory Barnard class “Big Problems: Making Sense of 2020,” which flippantly conflated the Black Lives Matter movement, COVID-19, and global warming in ten student-led discussion sessions and a short series of guest lectures. In lieu of the zine that was assigned as the final project, Sissoko and other students submitted a letter to the administration voicing their emphatic dissent against Barnard’s pedagogical approach to addressing racism. “I think I wrote the line in the letter: ‘We are not tools for white students’ education,’” Sissoko recalled.
Sissoko’s subsequent academic pursuits were much more intentional and fruitful. They are no stranger to the abundance of Barnard acronyms: they are a WGSS (Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies) and medical anthropology double major with a minor in F/ISTS (Feminist Intersectional Science and Technology Studies). The lengthy terminology may sound awkward, but it aptly encapsulates the full breadth of their academic disciplines, much of which explores the complex relationships between gender, race, and society.
To Sissoko, Barnard’s claim to be a “women’s college” is simply too truncated. Throughout our conversation, they emphasized Barnard’s need for more nuance and clarity regarding its institutional identity. When I erroneously referred to Barnard as a historically women’s college, they interjected, sighing: “No, it’s just a women’s college.” Barnard’s gender essentialist terminology felt archaic to Sissoko, especially given the portion of the college’s population that identifies as genderqueer or non-female.
“In my perfect world, Barnard would quite literally be ‘Woman and,’” they stated. “I'm sorry if it feels clunky to say trans, genderqueer, [and] non binary … just because the language isn't there yet to describe what it means to be a non-cis man doesn't mean you shouldn't say it.”
I carefully observed that being a nonbinary student at a women’s college made Sissoko, in some respects, a walking paradox.
“A walking paradox!” they exclaimed. “I always say I don't know if I would have identified as nonbinary so quickly if I didn't go to Barnard.” Because Barnard is largely devoid of the male gaze—“Obviously, Columbia exists,” they acknowledge—they found that they were able to explore what not being a woman felt like with relative ease, especially compared to the rest of the country’s general hostility to queer youth experimenting with gender. Like many of their peers, Sissoko unceremoniously changed their pronouns in their Instagram bio, and the next day, people were using them correctly. “[Barnard] is not a place where it's actually a big deal,” they remarked. “It's a big deal everywhere else.”
Sissoko’s academic work reflects elements of their own ontological reckoning with Barnard. Their thesis seeks to articulate the fluidity and freedom that nonbinary people experience in contrast to the gender binary, regardless of how one presents physically. As a Mellon Mays scholar, they are also conducting research on the symbiotic relationship between Blackness and transness. “Why is [it that] the worst thing that you can call both a Black woman and a trans woman is a man?” they posited. “Because for cishet Black women, the idea of being masculine is something that is dehumanizing. It's monstrous, and it’s the same thing for trans women.”
As we spoke, I marveled at the steadfastness and clarity of their speech. Sissoko seldom repeated themself, save for a penchant for the phrase “laundry list” to describe plenitudes of things, whether that be nonbinary interviewees for their thesis or ontological conflicts with Barnard. And they are well aware of their tendency towards veracity, which is reflected in their approach towards their biweekly meetings with Barnard Dean Leslie Grinage
As tensions over Columbia’s involvement in the conflict in Gaza mount on campus, Sissoko has been emphasizing students’ frustration with the Barnard administration to Grinage. Administration needs to hear about the dissonance students are experiencing “a thousand times,” they told me. “Do not, do not take the pressure off in any regard.”
Sissoko is nebulously tasked with separating their beliefs from the nonpartisan stance required of them as SGA President, given that they must adequately represent Barnard students from all ideological backgrounds. SGA positions are paid via the Student Activities Fee, so they are “literally compensated by every single student on this campus,” they noted.
That said, Sissoko is not oblique—and they don’t beat around the bush when speaking with Dean Grinage. “I don't mince words with her,” they said. They hasten to add that they are always respectful during conversations with the upper echelons of the Barnard administration. After all, a lot of trust is at stake. “Even when it feels like the things that are being done aren’t trustworthy,” they said resignedly.
What I found still more extraordinary was Sissoko’s seemingly endless stamina. They concurrently conduct ethnographic research for their thesis and Mellon Mays project, help their peers through anxieties in their office, and continue their several projects for SGA.
“I’m so tired all the time,” Sissoko confessed. As of late, the boundaries between being a college president and a therapist seem to blur. Maybe, I suggested to Sissoko, by virtue of feeling disillusioned by the adults at Barnard, students have found solace in them as a happy, neutral medium between the administration and their fellow classmates. Sissoko laughed wryly before remarking, “Which is funny, but I’m still a student.”
As Liz’s Place baristas began to close up shop, our conversation simultaneously wound down. When I asked Sissoko what self-care looks like for them, they told me that they do not have Instagram, TikTok, or Gmail downloaded on their phone—the last of which surprised me the most, as I could only imagine what their inbox must look like.
Seeing that I was incredulous, Sissoko shook their head, “If you don’t have my number, it’s not urgent.” Amid their many commitments, they do truly seem to live in the moment. After going through a handful of flimsy disposable cameras, they invested in an Olympus point-and-shoot film camera to document fleeting moments with their friends in their final year of college. After graduation, they are fairly confident that they will pursue a PhD in typical Mellon Mays fashion—when and where that happens is up in the air. As of now, the goal is to finish their tenure as SGA President during this tumultuous period, and then rest.
“I feel very disillusioned with this institution right now,” Sissoko admitted. “But I always have. I came in being like, ‘Rah rah. Let's do a boycott.’ It’s not like I’ve ever had rose-colored lenses towards where I’m going.”