Amazing Op-Ed in the Spec on the Open Forum and CU Students!

Columbians must take a stand

Columbia students need to pay attention to the issues in their college community.

By Andrea Viejo

Published April 3, 2012

Last week, I attended the open forum on Columbia’s expansion plan in West Harlem hosted by the Coalition to Preserve Community. To my dismay, most of the attendees were either West Harlem residents or active members of CPC. This made me ponder what this said about our student body. Before Monday’s forum, I did not have firm opinions on Columbia’s expansion plan, but attending the event drove me to strong conclusions. I wanted to be informed, to know what all the controversy was about, and to feel as if I wasn’t living in an ignorant bubble during my time here. What perplexes me is that the very active and intelligent student body at our university has yet to have a strong presence on this issue, regardless of what the stance may be.

After attending the forum, I told a few acquaintances that I was considering occupying the West Harlem space in support, and received mixed responses. Some claimed that as a student benefiting from the endless opportunities the University is providing me, I should be deeply grateful to it and respect its decisions. Others argued that the school should be treated like a business: In the process of paying tuition we function as clients, and therefore have the right to demand certain services from them in exchange. Both of these viewpoints are wrong, and I feel that their prevalence within the student body has impeded an active voice in issues such as the West Harlem expansion. A university should have a symbiotic relationship with its students with room for dialogue and debate. As students, we make up a major portion of this institution’s image—hence, what we voice can have a major influence on policy-making.

I invite you all to ask yourselves the following question: What type of university community do you want? I came to Columbia thrilled at the cultural diversity of living in this city. I chose Columbia over other top schools because I did not want to be secluded in thousands of acres of beautiful trees without any interaction beyond my Ivy League bubble. Thus far, one of the most enriching aspects of the New York I’ve encountered is Harlem. I tend to jog uptown early in the morning because I enjoy the dynamism of the area. It does not compare to the artificial class below 116th Street. As an international student from Mexico, learning about all the different social cleavages in El Barrio has been fascinating. This is the type of university community I want.

A large part of our student body identifies itself with the West Harlem stance on this issue, and by expanding and relocating those communities, we don’t really take into account the damage we are doing to our very own community. Amongst the most touching remarks I heard that night were those of Tom Kappner. He is a Columbia University alumnus. He is also a happy resident of Harlem, who moved there shortly after studying at Columbia. He is afraid of being expelled from the neighborhood he calls home, from the place where he has all his friends, networks, and memories, by the very university community he is also part of.

Similarly, I have met current students who grew up in West Harlem. They came to this school with endless illusions and dreams about the opportunities that lay before them and are instead faced with the fact that Columbia wants to take over the area where their families still reside. Then there’s a large sector of the student population who just can’t afford to see Columbia restructure West Harlem because it would be too expensive to live in. These are students who can’t afford to dine in the chic restaurants that line Broadway or shop in the delis around campus. Instead they go uptown to West Harlem to find cheaper groceries, and might have to head even more uptown if this expansion is successful.

The West Harlem expansion is not an issue that should be left in the hands of the administration. It affects a community that is directly involved with our college experience, it affects our student community, and it even affects the resources that are available to us. Ask yourselves what type of university community you want. If you support the West Harlem expansion, I respect that—let us know why, and you might help the communities that feel so threatened understand the reasons behind the actions taken. If you protest it, join CPC’s cause. They need your help, but they feel that the echo of their voices thins into silence among a student body that ignores them. Next time there is a similar forum to educate the student body on the issue, I expect a full house.

Andrea Viejo a Columbia College first-year. She is on the executive board of the Columbia Society of International Undergraduate Students and a writer for Nuestras Voces. From Outside In runs alternate Mondays.


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