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On Columbia’s (lack of) “Big Hearted” Individuals

“I’m so stressed out right now.”

“I have so much work this weekend.”

“God, these finals are going to be rough for me.”

This kind of dialogue is ubiquitous on campus, especially as the weather gets warmer, the sun gets brighter, and finals begin to hang ominously over every Columbia student’s head. Undoubtedly, Columbia is a difficult school. We are consistently ranked as having a high level of stress compared to other colleges in the United States. In 2011, Columbia was ranked the number one “most stressful” school, and in 2012, it was ranked “most rigorous” by The Daily Beast.

A few days ago, one of my friends told me that she thinks there’s “a dearth of big hearted people at Columbia.” Naturally, I did a bit of a double take — it’s not exactly the kind of thing someone wants to hear about their school. I inquired what she thought it meant to be a “big hearted person,” a working definition. After discussing it for a bit, we decided that a big-hearted person “sincerely and naturally feels the weight of other people’s lives.” These empathetic human beings really care about the people around them, and my friend was saying that we didn’t have individuals with this quality.

While it might feel that way sometimes, saying that we lack big hearted people at Columbia is reductive. We need to think differently to see the true picture.

People tell others about their stress and work. The people around them hear this, and because they are also probably overloaded with coursework, feel the need to talk about their work as well. A destructive amalgamation of insecurity, one-upmanship and stress talk ensues. Students naturally want to validate all the work that they put in and when they hear about their classmates’ work, they need to speak up themselves and highlight their own stress so that other people will know.

This positive feedback cycle is responsible for making people focus on themselves and for making people talk about themselves. The root of my friend’s “lack of big hearted people” problem lies here. Students at an intense, competitive, and stressful university become self focused, and this leads to people feeling alone. If a classmate talks about what is going on in his or her life most of the time rather than inquiring about how you are doing and what is going on in your life, it is only natural to feel like that person doesn’t care about you and doesn’t “sincerely and naturally feel the weight of other people’s lives.”

Students of Columbia and other intense and stressful colleges: do not slip down the slope of self-obsession and self-focus just because it feels like everyone around you is. Your life is hard, but so is the life of the cute girl sitting next to you in class, the person that lives next door to you in your dorm, and the guy that you always run into in the dining hall. When finals are closing in on you and you feel cornered, don’t forget about those around you.

We need each other more than ever at this point in the year. Make it your personal responsibility to ensure that no one feels trapped by their work. Ask how someone’s day was, then listen for a genuine answer. Strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know that well and learn something about them. Make people feel loved and supported. You are big hearted. You do care about your classmates. Don’t fail to show it.

This Op-Ed was written by Jake Petterson for his University Writing Progression 4 and is originally from The Lion Archives.

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