I earned my bachelors degree from Columbia College, Columbia University. Recently, we visited the campus to show my son where “Mommy went to college.”
Do you know that feeling when you visit a place from your past, stand in just the right spot and a flood of feelings and memories wash over you?
We stood in front of my first-year residence hall, right where I said goodbye to my parents as we all held back tears those many years ago, and I was almost 18 again. Closing my eyes for a second, there was no then and now, only here. Here I stood, the same me but with more past than before, a husband and child and a wistful wish I more than half desired: that my son might follow in my footsteps and attend my alma mater. My better half (no, not my husband but the more spiritual version of myself that doesn’t wish with such specificity) simply hoped that my child gets to walk well-prepared on his own path, a path filled with many opportunities.
As my mental eye watched my parents walk away, I felt my heart swell with excitement and sadness all over again, just for a moment, and I turned my gaze towards the center of campus. This place was the beginning of my dreams coming to life, with life still taking all those turns that lives take, and of learning to see the journey from multiple perspectives along the way.
“This is college?!” exclaimed my second grader, his eyes wide with wonder. He still preferred his cozy elementary school to university, but was eager for the mommy-led college tour. I showed him the philosopher names engraved on the library where I had studied, the dorms I had called home, the halls where I had listened to lectures and the Steps, the famous Columbia Steps in front of Low Library where I had spent countless nights contemplating my future. I would return to these same Steps at different stages in my life, sit for just a while and try to reconcile my then present with my past.
Looking out across the campus, I envisioned the vast knowledge housed in these grand buildings, marinating and churning in the heads and conversations of students, and waiting to be applied to relevant situations with the spark of understanding. Learning how to think is a life-long process of knowledge acquisition, contemplation and suitable application. It’s discerning what’s worth knowing, and getting from knowing, to understanding. And a big part of this journey for me started on this campus, where brilliant minds came together from all corners of the world to teach and learn from each other, and from their professors too.
One of the things I cherish most about my time at Columbia was this coming together of students and faculty from all over the world. I had moved around a lot as a child but spent my secondary education years in a town without much ethnic or racial diversity. Suddenly I shared meals, classrooms and a bathroom down the hall with people from places I knew nothing about or worse (but all too common), had merely preconceived notions about. That first year of college was filled with nights staying up until the wee hours of the morning with my floor mates (students who lived on my floor) talking about . . . EVERYTHING. These were the classes between classes.
We came together during the day based on shared interests of study, bringing our varied backgrounds and perspectives to the discussions. Did I feel homesick at times? Of course! That’s why care packages from home were “a thing” in college! And it’s always a comfort to find a like-minded soul, to feel understood and simply “gotten” by others. But the magic really happened when I found such souls where I least expected. This was Columbia, and this was New York City. Diverse minds, bodies and souls to connect with were everywhere, as long as we were willing to set aside the comforts of home and challenge our conceptions of “us” and “others.”
Columbia’s main campus is peppered with gates throughout its entry points. Some of these gates remain opened 24/7 and some have scheduled closing times. I remember deriving a sense of safety from these gates as a petite, 18-year-old young woman returning to my native New York City after growing up elsewhere for a number of years. It was comforting to know I could take in the city at my own pace simply by stepping out those gates and stepping back through them when I’d had enough for the day, leaving the city behind until next time. Figuratively, these open gates reminded me of the learning and life journeys themselves. It’s cozy within the gates, among the people and perspectives we know, but there is so much growth that comes from choosing to step outside as much as we can. As students in a college community, our experiences were peppered with such choices. How do we define the perimeters of “people like me” and where do we place those gates accordingly? How much time did we spend on either side of them and how were those choices perceived?
For me, I worked to serve my Latino community through student teaching and volunteer tutoring. Giving back to the communities we identify with and helping their members achieve, impacts the representation and success of such communities in the long run, which in turn can create more diverse representation across different areas. I also joined the cultural organization representing my Puerto Rican background and I studied the literature, language and music of my Latin roots. But these choices alone did not represent my commitment to diversity. They represented my commitment to learning about certain aspects of my background and reaching out to inspire and be inspired by members of my cultural community.
However, when we choose to keep to our own communities out of comfort and in lieu of participation in more general groups, we miss out on the real and immediate meaning of diversity. Truly appreciating diversity does not lie in the staying separate or seeking comfort and safety in separateness. It lies in the stepping outside the gates of our identities, coming together with “others” and allowing for that most special spark of understanding that happens when different perspectives meet. To that end, I opted for various student groups and social circles where the common thread was not about what I looked like or where I came from, and that education was priceless.
Drawn to Diversity
I’ve been drawn to diversity since at least my Columbia days, and I hope neither I, my alma mater nor my fellow Columbia graduates ever lose our commitment to encouraging the coming together, over the staying apart. I hope we continue to encourage exposure, lots and lots of exposure to different ideas, different beliefs, different opinions and particularly, the types of perspectives that annoy us and disturb us into thinking more deeply about them. I hope we continue to feed our souls with those metaphorical care packages filled with the familiar, but nourish our minds with the “unfamiliar at first” stuff that helps us grow. And I hope we continue to celebrate our diversity together, in the broadest possible sense of our togetherness.
A Perspective on Time
As we ended our tour and the moments from my past began to fade back into my memory, decades passed in nanoseconds leaving me only in the now. I looked at my husband and child and just like that, nothing and everything had changed. We stepped out of the gates on 116th St., returning to the life we never left and leaving behind a world that had been long gone, until we return again.
Maybe time isn’t a lie . . . we just see it differently depending on where and when we stand.
❓Have you experienced this sense of time “folding in” on itself; of moments within moments seemingly happening at the same time?
❓What comes to mind first when you think of diversity: the notion of separate experiences or this idea of coming together? Why is that?
❓Where would you place the metaphorical gates of your identity and has that placement shifted throughout your life?