Updated: Jul 18, 2021
A look into Columbia’s Community Scholars Program.
By Channing Prend
Like any other student, Eric Washington has a CUID, logs in using his UNI, and takes courses at Columbia. Yet he’s not enrolled in any of the university’s 20 undergraduate or graduate schools. “I’m usually the oldest person in my classes,” Washington laughed. “On the first day of my Urban Studies class last semester I was mistaken for a guest speaker.”
Washington is one of the nine people in the Columbia Community Scholars Program. The program, which officially began in the fall of 2013, was first conceived as part of the community benefits negotiations surrounding Columbia’s Manhattanville campus expansion. It was developed by the Office of Government and Community Affairs, and, according to the university’s website, is designed to “offer independent, community-based scholars from Northern Manhattan access to a suite of Columbia University services and resources that allow them to work toward the completion of a particular project to attain skill in a particular area.”
Karen Jewett, Columbia’s Vice President of Government and Community Affairs, stated that the program was created to make the ivory tower more accessible. “As a university, we were in a unique position to offer more than just financial and physical amenities,” Jewett said. “We wanted to make the intellectual resources of the university available to the community.” These intellectual resources include access to Columbia’s libraries and databases, as well as the ability to audit classes and attend university events for the duration of the three-year program.
In order to be eligible, prospective applicants must live in Manhattan north of 96th Street, have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and have no current affiliation with Columbia. In order to be accepted into the program, applicants must outline a specific project they want to undertake.
The provisions of the program were established in the 2011 General Project Plan agreement with the state. A slender paragraph in the 57-page document offers the only official guidelines for the program. Given how loose the parameters are, both the scholars and the administrators have struggled to define the program’s mission. As everyone involved noted, it’s a work in progress. “We’re hoping that these first few cohorts are going to help us sort out what it is that they really want from the university,” Jewett said.
The vague language of the program’s mission— “the completion of a particular project to attain skill in a particular area”—means that the projects cover a wide range of topics. One scholar, Mariama Keita, is researching historical women’s movements in the Republic of Guinea. Another, Paula Kimper, is writing an opera. Adarsh Alphons is studying economics and development and applying what he learned to help expand his arts education nonprofit, ProjectArt.
A phrase that often surfaces in relation to the program is “independent scholar.” For many, however, the program is a bit too independent. “One of the challenges of the program is that it’s very self-guided,” Kimper said. “Unless you have the initiative to really seek out guidance, you might get mired in all the choices.” The scholars are not assigned a mentor or advisor. Keita remarked, “There isn’t someone calling you every day or emailing you telling you to do this or that.”
In fact, since it is not a degree program, there are no requirements or methods of evaluation. Technically, it would be possible for a scholar to finish the three-year program with nothing to show for it. As Alphons said, “I’m not obliged to do anything per se.”
According to Jewett, the admissions committee looks for projects that will add value to the community and the university, but how this value is determined is unclear. Some of the projects, such as Alphons’ nonprofit, have a clear tie to the community–ProjectArt provides free after-school art classes to young people in public libraries in West Harlem. But for some of the other more academic projects, the direct connection to the community is less clear. Does composing an opera or researching a book impact West Harlem residents? Should it have to?
Kimper sees the program as a way to build bridges between the university and local residents. Washington echoed her sentiment, adding, “I’m hoping that this program is representative of an attitude change between the campus and the community.” But the Community Scholars program itself can’t do much to ease decades of town and gown tensions over Columbia’s expansion into the Harlem area. Any progress in that direction would require commitment to the community as a whole, not just a handful of its residents.
The program may be just one small part of increased community engagement, but in order to make an impact on the community going forward, the program needs to reach more people. “Nobody really knows about it, at the university or in the community,” Kimper said. “I always end up explaining it.” Jewett said that the current approach to outreach relies on the government and community affairs database of civic leaders, local elected officials, nonprofits, and community boards. “We were really counting on word of mouth for some of it,” she added. Jewett seems to be correct, since all the scholars I spoke with found out about the program through a referral from a friend.
This bootstrap approach to outreach may not extend far enough, though; nearly all of the scholars have advanced degrees. According to Jewett, this reflects a lack of non-college educated applicants rather than selection committee bias. She noted that the detailed project proposal could be an inherently limiting factor for many applicants. Still, for the people that don’t have the ability to plan a specific project, Jewett did mention “the university has a lot of stuff that’s open to the public.”
In order to give the scholars something to work towards, Jewett mentioned that the program might culminate in a presentation. “We’re still figuring out how to give the program structure,” she said. “As it stands, someone could take some classes for the first year and then drift off.” All of the scholars that I spoke with supported this idea. “I would welcome a vehicle for demonstrating my work,” Washington said.
Like much about the program, its future is unclear. The original provision in the General Project Plan states, “Columbia envisions the program to proceed as a pilot for ten years and then be re-evaluated to assess its effectiveness.” How to assess the effectiveness remains to be seen. “I think everyone wants this program to succeed,” Washington said. “But the metrics for actually defining that success are still being shaped.” Moving forward, the program will evolve based on the scholars’ needs. “They’re kind of letting us create the program as we go,” Kimper said. Involving community members in the university may eventually play a part in improving relations between Columbia and West Harlem. For now though, its impact seems limited, if not symbolic.