By Allison Scola
On New Student Orientation Day in late August 2005, Stephen Davis, President of the 2005–2006 General Studies Student Council (GSSC), took the podium to address the crowd in Alfred Lerner Hall’s Roone Arledge Cinema. He proudly told his new classmates—whose ranks include Olympic medalists, parents, former taxi drivers, and IT consultants—that they were about to embark on an amazing intellectual experience. He explained that if they wanted to play an active role in the life of the student community, over 200 student interest groups exist in which they could participate; that the GSSC meets on Tuesday evenings in Lerner Hall, and everyone is welcome.
Davis was able to advertise such possibilities because over the past ten years, the School of General Studies Student Council (GSSC) evolved from a small student governing group into an active organization of passionate students focused on community building and campus-wide integration. Achieving greater campus-wide integration has been challenging, but because of previous visionary GSSC leaders, today’s students have a greater sense of community and more opportunities than ever before.
Just ten years ago, current GS Assistant Dean of Students Paola Scarpellini-Crotts (GS 1995) was in her final year as a GS student. She recalls that only a handful of GS student groups existed. “I remember attending a few Writers Club readings,” she commented, and then added that learning about other events and opportunities for undergraduates was difficult. “If you saw the flyer, you saw the flyer. If you didn’t, you missed the event.”
In 1995, a few social events and organizations were available to GS students; however, before widespread use of the internet, email, and cell phones, contacting the general student population was limited to printed newsletters and posters that were distributed only on-campus. In addition, because much of the GS population worked, had families, or were focused on academics, few students participated in extracurricular activities.
Walter Sweet (GS 1996), President of the 1994–1995 General Studies Student Council, noted that although few, there were students who sought an extracurricular life at GS. He explained that a minority of students expressed interest in interacting with undergraduates at Columbia College (CC), School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), or Barnard College (BC), but the majority of GS students who sought activities participated in the six or seven organizations that the GSSC supported—groups such as the Columbia Dramatists, The Observer journal, the Women’s Coalition, the Speakers Club, the Writers Club, and the Yearbook Committee.
The creation of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences in 1990, which integrated Columbia's schools academically, set the table for another integration--that of student life.
Student life at GS has transformed since Sweet’s undergraduate days. Because of a number of sweeping changes, today’s students enjoy an array of academic and extracurricular choices vastly different from the mid-1990s. The transformation traces back to 1990 with the creation of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences, an initiative that formalized years of work towards academic integration by creating one faculty for all of the Arts and Sciences schools at Columbia.
Further, in the early-to mid-1990s, an even greater change occurred: an administrative reorganization separated the continuing education programs, Summer Session, American Language Program, the Columbia sponsored study abroad programs, and the non-degree and visiting students programs from the undergraduate degree granting program and the Postbaccalaureate Premedical program. This separation created a new division called Continuing Education and Special Programs. The new structure enabled the School of General Studies to focus on its core mission: to attract, train, and support nontraditional students who possess exceptional academic potential within the challenging intellectual environment that is Columbia University.
Walter Sweet remembers that it was a tumultuous yet exciting time for the school. “Before the official administrative split, there were some people that questioned the necessity of having an undergraduate college for nontraditional students. Once Caroline Bynum was appointed dean, she moved to clarify GS’s unique mission and strengthen its relationship with the Arts and Sciences Faculty and the University administration.”
Dean Bynum’s tenure (1993–1994) was followed by that of Dean Gillian Lindt (1994–1997), who led the School through structural changes recommended by the University Strategic Planning Commission spearheaded by Provost Jonathan Cole. According to Sweet, Lindt infused GS with a new sense of pride and tradition that led to stabilized enrollments and revitalized fundraising. Sweet commented, “Under each dean’s leadership, the mood shifted, and students, faculty, and administrators renewed their commitment to the School.”
In 1997, Peter Awn was named dean, and he worked aggressively to continue the academic integration started by his predecessors. It was this academic integration that set the table for greater student life integration among the undergraduate colleges. The momentum was contagious, and many students began to seek social integration that mirrored the progress made on the academic front. That is what prompted Bridget Burke (GS 2003) to ask her advisor about how she could meet other GS students. “I joined the Student Council because it was one of the only extracurricular venues for GS students. I wanted to be part of what was going on,” Burke recalled.
In her first year on the Council in 1996–1997, Burke served as the liaison to the Columbia College Student Council. The position introduced her to the potential for the GSSC. Her enthusiasm prompted her to run for President that spring. She won the election and led the Council for the following two academic years.
During her term, Burke exploited her background in public relations to cultivate a more cohesive GS student community. Through publications such as the Student Guide to Living, the first GSSC website, and a monthly community newsletter called Civitas, she established ways for her classmates to learn easily about events. In addition, she reached out to journalists at the Columbia Spectator, which generated a number of articles covering the activities of the GS Council.
Burke’s enthusiasm was joined by that of her colleagues: In just two years, the Council expanded from eight positions to twenty-two. The new leadership regime represented a growing population of GSers who believed that involvement in extracurricular activities and the life of the Columbia community added an important dimension to their educational experiences. Six years after the academic integration of the undergraduate faculties, a desire for social integration had grown among the nontraditional student population.
(1997-1999 GSSC student body president Bridget Burke, bottom right, with her fellow council officers.)
A movement toward equal opportunity in student life began in February 1997 when the GSSC requested that the Columbia College Student Council (CCSC) appoint a liaison to participate in the GSSC’s weekly meetings in order to facilitate relations between the two student councils. The request prompted a surprising response, “I don’t consider GS to be of the same genre as the other three undergraduate colleges. We have different needs, different concerns, and very different constituencies,” stated the CCSC Vice President presiding over the meeting. (Hofstetter, Steve. “Council Denies General Studies a Representative.” Columbia Spectator, 25 Feb. 1998)
The CCSC’s decision brought to light issues that the GSSC would be championing for the next few years: Not only did the Columbia College, SEAS, and Barnard student boards feel GS was not “of the same genre” as the other undergraduate schools, but they also pointed out financial reasons for not granting the GSSC’s request for representation.
“[Creating such] structural links will lead to pressure to open up every door to GS students. Establishing a link with GS council could create some friction with [the Union of Student Organizations]. It’s our student activity fees that pay for these clubs to run,” declared the CCSC Vice President. (Hofstetter, Steve. “Council Denies General Studies a Representative.” Columbia Spectator, 25 Feb. 1998)
The denial of the liaison request was a setback for the GSSC, yet they worked to resolve the matter in a constructive fashion. Later that semester, the CCSC amended its constitution to appoint a liaison to the GS Council. With the appointment, the GSSC made strides, however, the issue made it clear to GS students that in order to participate fully in activities with other undergraduates, they would have to challenge the perception of what a GS student is, and they would need to change the funding policies of all the student government organizations.
With this focus, Burke and the councils she led began to lay the foundation for a broader change, one that guaranteed future GS students full integration into extracurricular life on campus. She did this by creating a Presidents’ Council that met monthly and gave the leaders of the CC, SEAS, BC, and GS councils an opportunity to share news and ideas. She also encouraged GS students to participate in campus interest groups and programmed activities and social events targeted at the nontraditional student population.
As time passed, more matriculants showed interest in participating in student groups and activities. The following spring, a record turnout for the 1999–2000 elections revealed a new lineup of GSSC officers featuring Christopher Smith, President (GS 2000) and Bernard Goldstein, Vice President (GS/JTS 2002). With fresh energy, Smith and his team embarked on a year of continued community building, networking, and public image overhaul. As 1999–2000’s Senior Class President Evelyn Kircher (GS 2001) explained, “We on the GSSC wanted to bust the myth that GS students weren’t interested in enjoying a richer social experience.”
Optimism about positively changing perceptions grew until an October 1999 Columbia Spectator opinion piece written by the CCSC Communications Director noted a series of negative impressions about the School of General Studies and its students. “Ask most College and SEAS students what sort of contribution is made by the GS students in their classes, and you will most likely receive a snort, snicker, and a crude response.” (Neumann, Ariel. “Identity Crisis Plagues School of General Studies.” Columbia Spectator, 6 Oct. 1999.)
The segment prompted an uproar among the GS Community, and in the days following, the Spectator received a flurry of letters to- the-editor from Columbia College students, alumni, current GS students, and a religion professor, to name a few—all contesting the piece. One published letter from GSSC President Christopher Smith countered each published inaccuracy about GS regarding admissions standards, graduation requirements, and the misperception that the School advertises in the New York City subway. Smith concluded his letter challenging, “[GS students include people] who came here specifically to be in this environment of gutsy pioneers who dared to do things backwards.”
Kircher remembers that at first, response to the article felt like defeat, but, “After reading Chris’s piece in the Spectator, I wanted to become even more involved.”
Mason Beard (GS 2004) who held a number of positions on Council throughout her four-year academic career commented, “It woke us all up.”
Consequently, the Council and its supporters went to work to dispel misunderstandings about the School of General Studies’ population. Smith explained that although uniting GS, CC, Barnard, and SEAS students was a, “...painful process. We made progress in little steps by co-sponsoring events and holding meetings between the council presidents every month.”
Smith’s Council also turned inward. They knew that developing a sense of GS pride would help their cause within the larger University community. The GSSC became a reliable resource for students, helping them network, giving them a voice with administrators, building community, and programming inclusive social events. The result was a change in the overall energy in Lewisohn Hall. The year’s kick-off barbeque was well attended, the Lewisohn Lounge became a hub for degree students to meet and study, and the year culminated in the first formal social event for GS in decades.
“There was a lot of skepticism about whether or not there would be interest in a formal dance,” Kircher remembers, “And the question was raised, ‘Do thirty-year olds really need a prom?’ but Chris Smith’s answer was, ‘Why, yes!’”
The GS population proved the GSSC right: 300 tickets for the 2000 GS Spring Formal dinner-dance held in Low Library’s rotunda sold-out within 24-hours. It was a huge success and illustrated the enthusiasm GS students had for more traditional-student customs.
During the following two years with Bernard Goldstein (GS 2002) as President in 2000–2001 and Michael Nadler (GS 2002) as President in 2001–2002, the GSSC continued to forge relationships with the other undergraduate councils and organizations. Goldstein used his experience from serving as CCSC Liaison in 1998–1999 to encourage further interaction between GS and College, SEAS, and Barnard students. With more GS students extending themselves, in concert with an increased offering of University housing and the explosion of modern communication tools, the GS student body chipped away at the barriers between campus communities.
Mason Beard remembers, “More than anything, GS students wanted to be respected on campus and be an integral part of the undergraduate community.”
Big strides had been made, but ultimately, both Goldstein and Nadler understood that constitutional and administrative changes needed to be addressed to gain full access to undergraduate student activities. Nadler recalls, “I thought it was unfair that we couldn’t participate in executive positions in student groups that we were contributing a great deal to. As members of organizations, our participation and dedication was the same in every other way. Why not just make it equal?”
During the 2001–2002 academic year Nadler and Vice President Mason Beard made it their business to force the discussion about total integration. They spent the entire year of their term “fighting the uphill battle” to have the new Activities Board at Columbia (ABC, formally the USO) bylaws amended. They finally made headway when the ABC realized the fiscal benefits of full integration. By the last month of the spring 2002 semester, Nadler and Beard composed a proposal that tackled what Beard termed, “the funding hurdle.” With support from GS Assistant Dean of Students Dominic Stellini, they were able to raise the GS Student Life Fee to match the funds required by ABC and the Earl Hall Center for full participation.
Mary Catherine (Katie) Daily (GS 2003), who served as GSSC President following Nadler in 2002–2003, had the honor of signing the amended ABC constitution.
“It was a long time in the making. In fact, many people said, ‘I can’t believe we didn’t do this sooner!’”
Stellini remarked, “GS students were off and running once the organizations opened up.”
Today GSers continue to work to integrate the Columbia community. In addition to scores of GS students participating in extracurricular activities (the GS Student Activity Fee now pays into five student governance councils), outreach tools, such as “Faces of GS,” a feature on the new GSSC website, introduce the greater community to the diversity and distinctiveness of GS students.
Ariel Beery (GS 2005), President of the GSSC in 2004–2005, wrote in his February 2005 web-address, “…together we can create a [stronger] community and lay down the foundations for a better future for the students of the School of General Studies.”
With that sentiment, internal community development continues, not only with traditional events such as deans' teas, happy hours, and the annual spring formal, but also with new concepts such as an ethnic meal series, town-hall meetings, and parents-who-are students events.
Furthermore, Council elections for the past few years have been held on-line, making voting more accessible to students who are not on campus everyday.
It is a new era at GS, and as the 2005-2006 GSSC President Stephen Davis reflected in his campaign platform, “When you walk around campus, unlike my freshmen year, people now recognize what GS stands for. This is in no small way thanks to years of hard work by the GSSC.”