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In Defense of CUE

Last week, Barnard’s administration made the decision to cut funding for the pre-orientation Columbia Urban Experience (CUE) starting in 2020. In her email to students Dean of Student Life Alina Wong attributed this decision to “factors that surround CUE, including the organization and implementation of the program, the considerable financial and staff resources expended, and its impact on NSOP and the broader Barnard Community.” While this response is vaguely more satisfying than the response I got when I tried to petition the class Indio-Tibet Buddhism to count as Global Core (“This is a good lesson for the times in life that you are not entitled to an explanation”), it strikes me as a half-hearted attempted to excuse a top-down, bureaucratic decision that left no room for students’ voices or engagement. Reading emails and attending student meetings (or not, apparently) only counts as a participatory process if there isn’t already a set agenda of what will happen, an inevitable outcome. Not long after my own failed attempt, Columbia did away with the Global Core petition process–at least in this case, the administration was open about its lack of interest in student dialogue.

For those that don’t know, CUE is a small weeklong program (usually between 50-70 incoming students from Barnard, JTS, Columbia College, and SEAS with a student leader team of approximately 15 upperclassman) than runs before NSOP. During the week, students volunteer at various service sites while also participating in evening discussions and activities based around service learning and transitioning into the communities of New York City and Columbia. The program is intimate, exhausting, powerful, and far from perfect. Dean Wong is correct to acknowledge the limited number of participants CUE can provide for as well as the struggle to maintain and deepen community relationships far beyond just the one-week program. Every CUE leader and coordinator is aware of these issues because they are discussed frequently and passionately: Can we expand the program? Should we? What yearlong activities can we engage in? How do we make sure our programming is sustainable? What Dean Wong fails to acknowledge, however, is the historical role that both Columbia and Barnard’s administrations have played in frustrating these conversations, either by their lack of support or through their uncounseled, financially motivated decisions. A few examples that I had to actively deal with in my time as a CUE leader included the switching of CUE’s administrative advisor three times in three years, an attempt to ban all leaders who studied abroad from serving, inadequate housing accommodations that separated Barnard students from the rest of the participants, and the lack of dining hall access for upperclassmen volunteer leaders during NSOP.

Clearly, I have my own bias—I participated in CUE as a freshman back in 2011 and later served as a program leader for the next three years. CUE was the foundation of my college experience in a way that I know is not true for everyone that participates in its programming. But in light of Barnard’s recent decision, I do want to highlight what CUE offers that I believe no other University undergraduate program currently does. I hope that it will help to inform Barnard’s development of other “innovative ways to engage our students and the community” as well as encourage Columbia’s administration to work towards a partnership with CUE’s student leaders that holds greater trust, respect, and support.

  1. Inter-Grade & School Mentorship

 Being accepted to Columbia off the waitlist from a rural, Appalachian community, I had vast and consuming doubts about my potential as a student in such a rigorous and challenging academic environment. CUE taught me that this feeling was nearly universal and provided me with role models that I respected and who, to my great surprise and joy, respected me in turn. These weren’t university-assigned ‘friends’ as in NSOP but rather student leaders who took the time to get to know my interests, my strengths, even my weaknesses. When class registration came around, I relied on the older students, knowing already what majors and what ideas they were pursuing, to recommend professors and help navigate the registration process. When the activity fair took place, my CUE leaders were able to guide me with honest and experienced advice that was based in knowledge of my interests and personality.

In a place where it is all too easy to become entrenched in the circumscribed social spheres of housing placements (the craziness of Carman’s freshman life in my case), CUE provided access to a richer and more diverse peer network. Because of CUE, I found out about many of my favorite-classes-to-be offered at Barnard (also eventually living in Barnard housing), learned from watching my older friends graduate and pursue their post-college paths, and stayed connected to the new themes and challenges faced by younger students as I myself prepared to graduate. Beyond the personal, CUE participants consistently push for inter-school involvement and have been crucial in creating and supporting on campus organizations that are truly collaborative and welcoming to all University undergraduates: The second largest service organization at Columbia, Youth for Debate, founded by former CUE participant is one such example.

  1. Informal Leadership Network

 While true that CUE only allows for a small number of participants, especially when compared to other pre-orientation programs, like ISOP and COOP, or the all-inclusive orientation program, NSOP, it is this very quality that also ensures that CUE has an impact and outreach far beyond the first week of school. Perhaps it is time for CUE to rebrand itself under the in-style terms of leadership capacity building (I’m frankly pulling for the Community Understanding & Empowerment Program).

Although I can’t offer empirical evidence (but would be excited to see the administration and CUE collaborate on a more comprehensive monitoring and evaluation plan for the program), my overwhelming experience is that CUE participants are disproportionately involved in campus leadership positions and community activism for their small number: From serving as class presidents and heading student group executive boards to creating their own nonprofits, fighting for safer campuses, and supporting low-income and first-generation college students, CUE participants are movers and shakers working to improve the places where they work, study, and learn. By bringing together a group of students passionate about inspiring community change, CUE provides a network of individuals that can tap into the ideas, resources, and skills of one another in a seamless and effective way before even the first day of classes start.

  1. Critical Thinking about Community

 If there is anything I miss about college, it is the accessibility and availability of opportunities to get involved in both campus and community work (and if there is anything I don’t miss about college, it is the endless amount of listservs my name somehow got on). For the most part, however, CUE stands alone in promoting not just the what and the how of community work, but also the why. It is different from NSOP and the other pre-orientation programs in that it not only allows but also actively encourages students to grapple with the reality of attending an elite institution that looms over Harlem and stretches out demandingly into Manhattanville. It challenges students to think critically about their own placement in the communities that they live in and to envision creative ways of challenging status quos and systems of privilege. CUE constantly reassess themes of service learning and community participation that address in honest and unfiltered terms relevant community issues: How do we create spaces on campus that are both safe and inclusive? What is the relationship between Columbia University and Barnard College? What faculty and staff offer student support and resources?

  1. Of Being There

 Watching the Varsity Show last spring was a difficult experience for me. All of its jokes seemed to taste a bit sour under the weight of a Columbia community portrayed as divided, angry, resentful, and mistrusting of one another—a portrayal I found far too accurate on many occasions. To see reflected in a few hours the entire disconnection and struggle of a whole year as I sat on the edge of graduation was a blow to the gut, the same sort of queasy feeling I get while listening to my peers voice their frustration, alienation, and isolation over and over again. In my four years attending Columbia, this boiling atmosphere of stress and unhappiness only seemed to become more aggressive, the moments of collective community celebration and joy further and further apart. I could be wrong; maybe these tensions are a needed catalyst for change, or maybe my perception is overly pessimistic and skewed. Maybe both of these things are true, and even still there are far too many students that don’t feel like the Columbia community is a home, or that it is a home they want to belong to.

How do you create community? I remember my first week on Columbia’s campus sharing a McBain double with a brilliant Barnard astrophysicist. Earlier in the evening, CUE had split up its participants into small groups for a reflection activity, a time to think about where we had all come from and where we wanted to go. The activity was not easy–for some overwhelmingly emotional, for others awkwardly forced. But, we listened to one another and when my roommate returned to our room feeling caught under the weight of her losses and longing for home, we pulled our mattresses together on the floor, sleepover style. Another friend ran down to Tom’s to retrieve milkshakes while one of the upperclassman leaders (sleep-deprived and over-worked) plopped down beside us—to just listen and be there. It was an intangible moment, not something you could write on a form or price tag, but I struggle to think of a time that I felt more comfortable, more at home at Columbia than I did that night. Community can be created in many ways, but CUE taught me that more than anything it requires a form of being present and listening that is born out of a sincere desire to support and encourage—a lesson I’m not sure the Columbia and Barnard administrations have fully learned.

Brooke Burrows is a 2015 graduate of Columbia College and a former  CUE participant/Student leader. She is currently in Armenia for a two-year program in the Peace Corps.

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