Nowakowski uplifts the contributions of fellow scholars doing similar work by editing the Health and Aging in the Margins book series; with their spouse and frequent collaborator J Sumerau Ph.D., they also lead the Write Where It Hurts advocacy project, focused on scholarship informed by lived experience of trauma. They volunteer with several different cystic fibrosis organizations; since 2020 they have also served on the Board of Directors for the US Adult Cystic Fibrosis Association. Nowakowski has stayed engaged with Columbia as a volunteer interviewer for the Alumni Representative Committee and as a career mentor for various University programs.
What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
I felt excited to immerse myself in the College and New York City, certainly. I had grown up relatively close to NYC near New Brunswick, N.J., so for me, putting down transitory roots felt more like connecting more deeply with an old friend. But I also felt a sense of new and unfamiliar turmoil brewing in my life. The vast and intricate worlds of campus and the city at large offered welcome respite.
My first semester, fall 2001, obviously brought significant turmoil for the city and the nation. But I also remember it as the last period during which I enjoyed relatively good physical health; I have cystic fibrosis, and my experience of connecting with the Core Curriculum and other courses became intricately linked with accelerating progressive decline.
The critical thinking and scientific research skills I sharpened during my undergraduate years at the College may well have saved my life.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
I lived in John Jay, which proved an excellent choice on multiple fronts. I was an “ambivert” socially — someone with ample extroversion and introversion alike. The bustling social environment of Jay coupled with residents’ respect for one another’s privacy created the perfect balance for me in feeling welcome yet tranquil.
This became especially important later in the year as my health began to decline. In those times of increasing exhaustion, I loved hearing my hallmates’ music playing softly through the walls. The pulsing energy of Jay 10 kept me going; it surprises me little that my friends from Jay were the first to notice that I seemed unwell.
What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?
My CC class chose Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus as an optional text; their writings represent one of the first instances of people with schizophrenia contributing widely embraced works to the Western philosophical canon. Although my own journey with chronic illness had miles to go yet before achieving any sense of coherence, it resonated deeply with me that my class chose to read this book — that many of my peers who were not sick would value learning directly from people who were.
I wound up reading A Thousand Plateaus in the hospital; I consolidated a memory of feeling upset that I could not keep my book with me on the gurney. That book and my other Core course texts were my lifelines; I wanted to be reminded of the life all around me, as if that might make it easier for me to cling to my own. I still treasure my same copy of A Thousand Plateaus today as an eternal reminder that my disease makes me more relevant in the work I am doing rather than less.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
I loved the Schermerhorn library. It represented the absolute best of Columbia’s tradition of building cozy liberal arts community amid the vast and dynamic activity of a major research institution. It was quiet, comfortable and warm on those cold days I spent commuting in and out of NYC during my last year — I would always make time to study at Schermerhorn before attending Priscilla Ferguson GSAS’67’s “Sociology of Everyday Life” class.
I mention that specific course now because it foreshadowed much of the path my life would later take. I earned my own doctorate in sociology years later, which seems prescient enough in and of itself. But in the process, I met J Sumerau Ph.D. At the time she was a fellow Ph.D. candidate, focused on applying the work of Erving Goffman — basically the sociologist of everyday life — to contexts of sexuality and gender identity. Reader, I married her.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I remember spending Saturdays wandering around different parts of the city, absorbing its history and culture. I attended a lot of shows at iconic venues that have since closed — North Six, The Continental, L’Amour, The West End, Smoke, Tonic, The Village Vanguard, CBGB and its Gallery. I treasure those memories intensely and would not change a thing about those experiences, or about the people with whom I continue to share that history today. Yet sometimes those adventures elsewhere led me to overlook exciting music and art opportunities right on the Columbia campus.
I did not start attending shows in the amazing basement event space in Lerner Hall until the end of my first year. One shining memory stands out in particular: lingering in the Lerner basement with my dear friend Seton Hawkins after an outstanding show by jazz saxophone virtuoso Charlie Hunter. That night proved truly unforgettable, and uniquely Columbia in spirit.
So I would go back and immerse myself in more of those opportunities on campus. Those were the moments that made me feel most alive outside of the classroom, and the ones that keep the music in me now. I do not know how realistic it would have been for me to try to “do more” with my time at the College between health challenges, working with Special Olympics New Jersey, and extracurriculars like Philolexian Society and Spectator, thesis research and everything else that was going on in my life at the time. But I certainly would make every effort to fit in more Live at Lerner shows if given the chance.