“Why merge?” My Barnard Experience

After reading Lanbo Zhang’s provocative op-ed “Why not merge?” I felt it was important to voice one perspective of a Barnard student, since he was lacking that element.

On Monday, Barnard President Debora Spar announced the intention to demolish and rebuild Lehman Hall, so as to build sufficient space after some period of time in excess of 20 or 30 years.

Lehman Library, formally known as Lehman Social Sciences Library, is located in SIPA. Wollman Library, more commonly called Barnard Library, is located in Lehman Hall, right in front of Lehman lawn. I can see how that may be confusing to some, but it’s something I learned right away as a first-year.

Now, as a senior, I study in Wollman more often. The space is humble and quiet, and I actually enjoy studying there. The atmosphere is not tinged with the same stress I feel whenever I study in Butler. Wollman is, for me, a peaceful alternative; an underrated getaway during my studies.

Barnard’s finances have been in shambles for a while. This is undeniable and yet, surprising, given the fact that most Barnard students enjoy their time here. Barnard continually impresses me with its will to survive, and there’s no doubt in my mind my alma mater will pull through.

Moreover, the independent-undergraduate-school-alongside-Columbia-existence is one that is inherently unique. Meaningless rhetoric and labels aside, in 20 or 30 years Barnard will still offer its students a college experience that is substantially and noticeably different from one at Columbia College. It does right now.

Irrespective of mission statements or the almost-merger that took place 30 years ago, Barnard is a small liberal arts college in New York which resides next to Columbia, the big research university that shades us under its many branches. I can’t pretend to know the Columbia College experience, but I can share my Barnard one.

While different degree and major requirements exist, the classes that fulfill those requirements can be the same, or they can be different. As a pre-med student, I’ve had the option to take the requirements at either Columbia or Barnard. While the course material is not substantively different, I’ve felt more of a support system in the science classes I’ve taken at Barnard versus Columbia.

The overwhelming pressure and competition I feel as a pre-med student in Barnard Biology or Chemistry was muted by the fact that I knew most of the women in my class; there was a communal sense of wanting to achieve and also wanting to help others do the same.  Perhaps if I knew more students in my Columbia Physics or Calculus classes, I would have felt the same way.

I understand the difference between the Columbia Core Curriculum and Barnard’s Nine Ways of Knowing. I see the benefits of both; requiring students to take the same classes allows for all students to share the same basic knowledge and a sense of unity, while allowing flexibility in requirements creates a program that caters to the individual student’s academic interests.

And still, it is entirely possible that two students, one registered at Columbia, another registered at Barnard, can graduate with similar degrees, having taken many of the same courses. All I know is that comparing my GER classes with those of my fellow Barnard ‘13ers always creates good discussion. Actively engaging in my education, questioning the merits of that education, and analyzing the different ‘ways of knowing’ is a process that every Barnard student goes through at some point during her time here.

Having used the advising, health, career, and other support services at Barnard, but none at Columbia, I can’t make comparisons or denote tangible differences, but I can again share my experiences. When I go to Health Services, Fabiola, the Receptionist and Administrative Assistant, greets me by name, and we catch up as I sign up for an appointment. I wave to Won Kang, the Senior Associate Director of the Career Development program, whenever I see him on campus – he always has a smile on his face.  My first-year advisor went to the same high school as I did; my current advisor signs off on his emails with “Cheers,” and always says hello to me when I pass him in the halls. These small familiarities define Barnard, and have certainly impacted my experience: that makes all the difference.

The social life during my time here has been an interesting one as I have close friends on both sides of Broadway. It’s always funny when students across the street assume I am a Columbia student until I inform them otherwise – Barnard students somehow always know. My social life is made up of openness and honesty: intellectual friction of the highest quality combined with the camaraderie and casual conversation that creates friendships.

My outlook on life is constantly being called into question by my friends, seriously or for fun, whether we’re at the Heights talking about relationships or in Sulzberger lounge discussing the implication of marriage. This process of questioning how I think and why is a central part of my experience at Barnard, where professors, faculty, and guest speakers are probing our outlooks all the time.

Women-only dorms could be seen as significant, and for some students, it makes all the difference for their experience here. For others like me, it doesn’t matter much, but I do view it as a pillar of the Barnard experience simply because it is important to some of my friends. Barnard and Columbia share the same haunts, but the dynamic within a Barnard seminar versus a Columbia seminar is radically different because of the approach to teaching; everyone at both colleges should take a class across the street at some point in their college careers.

The biggest difference between Barnard and Columbia is Barnard students having to constantly justify our existence as students and as an institution. The constant questioning of our value and worth is reminiscent of the female experience, and comes as a result of the separate history of the two schools.

There is no ignorance in asking why I chose Barnard; however, there is ignorance in failing to try to understand my reasons. There is ignorance in making me validate my choices when they have no effect on anyone else. And as a Latina, I’m no stranger to the ignorance which will manifest itself different ways for the rest of my life, but Barnard has helped me prepare to combat it.

Barnard’s dire finances and Columbia’s desire to expand are two issues that make a merger mutually beneficial. But before that happens, Barnard needs to seriously consider what they would be losing aside from the administrative overlap that currently exists. The decision to attend Barnard was a personal choice that more and more women are making every application cycle.

I can readily say that attending Barnard has made me a socially conscious, well-balanced, confident woman ready to graduate and take on the world – I would not be the same person I am today had I attended a different school. The experiences I’ve had here are not exclusive to Barnard, but they’re every reason I’ve enjoyed my time here and they’re what make Barnard special to me. I hope everyone at Barnard and Columbia feels this way about their college experience.

 

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