I can still vividly remember driving up to Ithaca, New York with my family so I could join Cornell’s freshman class in 1990. We reached the campus and found my dorm. We unpacked my suitcases and boxes and walked them into the room I'd be sharing with two other kids for the year. Then I walked my mother, grandmother, and little sister back out to the car. We shared a few hugs and kisses and they drove off and that was it. Time to go be a college student. I had no idea what that actually meant. So I spent the next few days, weeks, months stumbling around trying to act as if I knew exactly where to go for class, where to find friends, where to find good parties. I felt totally overwhelmed, if I'm honest, and then I was also expected to attend class regularly. Or at least semi-regularly.With time my panic passed and I came to realize that the other 2,958 freshman were probably feeling a lot like me, and that the 9,823 students in the upper classes had gone through this, too. This was the moment I understood that when my family of three left me in Ithaca I'd essentially traded them for a community of 12,800, not to mention all the staff and faculty as well. A reassuring idea in a way, but it also raised a new question. How on earth do I get to know all these people?
That time in my life came to me repeatedly as I read, watched, and listened to the various entries by students for the Arts Option of Columbia University’s Sexual Respect and Community Citizenship Initiative. So much of the work by these talented students seemed like attempts to communicate an essential experience or belief, to be understood, to be known by the community in which they’ve found themselves.
The subject of the initiative—sexual respect—allowed most of the students to bypass politeness and pleasantries and, instead, reveal their tough, troubled, thoughtful hearts. Many of these pieces directly address the experience of sexual violence or intimidation in ways that are bracing and painful. Many of the prose pieces do this with admirable courage and specificity. “Wanderlust” and “I’m a Woman Now” are powerful in their unflinching depictions while “Her Secret” approaches the same subject from the point of a view of a supportive daughter coming to a revelation about her mom. “173140/Friend” manages to be inventive, and playful, even as the ending returns the reader to the seriousness of the subject.
Other disciplines also offered standout work. A dance piece entitled "Asking for It" manages to be joyful and still spur contemplation; the multimedia piece “Green Lemonade” stands out as a satisfying take on the books of Dr. Suess if the good doctor had ever taken on the politics of sexual respect. The visual arts offered a haunting “Untitled” by Virginia Rives Kitchell, the captivating “Untitled” by Mi-Hwa Elizabeth Saunders, and the arresting "marynoexclamationpoint" by Mary C. Bosley. The video piece "Untitled" was hard to watch, but I felt it impossible to turn away, it was seriously effective. In the music category I found “Initiative” smart and well done and “Consent is Not a Word” by Lucie Vagnerova a challenging but addictive composition. I also felt proud of the anonymous student who wrote “futility 101,” a poem that challenged the university’s Community Initiative in a way that could inspire greater conversation about how the student population might be engaged. This seems healthy to me and to be encouraged.
After spending time with these entries I came away with such admiration for the time, thought, and ambition these students displayed. Thinking back to the freshman I'd been—the one who didn't even understand how much he wanted to share with his fellow students and just how much he wanted to listen to them—these pieces strike me as exactly the kind of thing I would've loved. The multitude of experiences and perspectives would have forced me to think more seriously about my school’s culture, its environment, and my responsibilities within them. How do you create a healthy community? You don't simply go to and from class, passing one another without more than a nod. Instead you share the hardships, the fears, and also the triumphs and strengths that come from having weathered the worst. The entries in the Art Option seem like an encouraging step in this journey. Here is your community. Know them and let them know you.
Assistant Professor of Professional Practice in Writing in the Faculty of the Arts
Columbia University School of the Arts