Our campus appears to me most often now as the virtual background during a Zoom call. My morning and evening transits along College Walk — to and from Hamilton Hall, with frequent stops to chat with students or faculty — have been replaced by 12 steps on a staircase and nine paces through the living room, stopping to pet our aging, adorable dog.
These are strange and sobering times. The scale of today’s crises, the way they have permeated every aspect of our lives, the continuing uncertainties and the unresolved problems weigh on everyone.
The pandemic has rewritten the rules of college life, not just at Columbia College but also at almost every school in the country. It has certainly been difficult to plan for a year in which the majority of our students cannot be on campus, and a year during which the traditional activities that join us as a community must yield to the imperatives of public health. What we once took for granted now feels precious — seeing students lounging on Low Steps or throwing frisbees on South Lawn; sharing the beauty of tree-lined College Walk with students, faculty and visitors; taking in the elegance of the windows of Butler Library illuminated at night.
But as daunting as this year may be, we can embrace it as an opportunity to display our ability to respond to any challenge while remaining focused on our objectives. We are always looking for new ways of doing things, ways that we never would have thought to look for were it not for the disruption of the normal. It is most certainly a time when the discipline of Beginner’s Mind will show its value.
Our Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights will expand its programming to increase opportunities for our entire community to learn, listen and participate in the repair of awed systems, the reassertion of individual responsibilities and the recognition of opportunities to take action. The new Global Columbia Collaboratory will move forward from its summer pilot phase to engage even more students in the projects of societal renewal made imperative by the pandemic, creating opportunities for our undergraduates to connect with global experts — virtually but no less effectively — while tackling issues of worldwide resonance and importance. I feel encouraged that the Columbia College experience will continue to offer our students a path to lives of significance, despite the constraints within which we must operate.
There will be few chances to bring alumni together for a while, but our commitment to staying in touch with you remains undiminished. Your engagement, support and affection for the College will be crucial to bolstering our efforts to navigate this historic year. Current students, managing through an academic experience marked by engagement at a distance, can be uplifted by a strong alumni presence in their lives. New graduates, still gaining their footing, will benefit from the mentorship and guidance of those who have passed through that transition already. And of course, your classmates and friends will be comforted to hear from and connect with you through Class Notes, emails or programs you can all join. A conscious effort to engage one another and maintain our College community matters more now that we will see each other less.
Stay safe, and be well.
James J. Valentini