Full disclosure: I spent five years at Columbia University.(One of those years was grad school — so no, I didn’t take a “victory lap”).
That’s why, when I heard the story of Birva Patel, a 26 year-old woman who allegedly spent months claiming to be a Columbia student and hanging out on campus, I thought — ‘That is a huge mistake… in fact, it doesn’t make any sense.’
According to students, Patel had been hanging out on campus since December of last year. Back then (and up to this spring) she was apparently claiming to be a Junior. Last month, though, she showed up posing as a Freshman during New Student Orientation Week. That’s when the police got involved.
Now, I don’t think Patel’s situation is crazy because she was awkward (Columbia, you should know, is chock full of awkwards). I don’t think it was crazy because she was especially threatening either (a bunch of students she interacted with said they didn’t think she was violent or anything).
The reason it’s crazy to try to squat at Columbia, or try to pose as one of its students, is because it’s nearly impossible.
With one caveat: You need conspirators.
Here’s how the campus works. Anytime you’re trying to get into almost any building, you have to swipe your student ID through a machine. The machine is connected to a computer. And that computer is being watched by a security guard or student who sees a profile of your status at Columbia flash on the screen.
This happens at all the dorms (students sign guests in when they have them), the dining hall (John Jay — where tons of Freshmen eat), all of the libraries, the gym, and even some areas of the classroom buildings.
You can try to beg your way in, but most campus security guards don’t have patience for forgetful students.
So if you want somewhere to sleep, forget the comfy chairs in Butler Library (the massive library on the school’s main quad). If you want somewhere to shower, you can’t get into Dodge (the underground gym).
If you want to eat, though, you have some options. Cafes in the Business School, Journalism School, and Lerner Hall (the student life building) are open to the public, but it’s hard to get beyond the cafe areas without an ID.
Plus, students use their IDs for everything from getting beers at social events to buying groceries down the street. If you don’t have one on you, you’re immediately suspicious. Replacing a lost ID, the last time I checked, costs about $15.
If you have a conspirator, though, they can sign you into the dorms, and you might be able to borrow an ID to get into places where you just have to wave it at a security guard too (there aren’t many of those, though).
On top of all of this, the campus is small and there only around 5,000 kids in the undergraduate schools. It’s easy to spot a new kid.
So if you want a nice campus to indulge your fantasies of going to college (or back to college) Columbia is not the place. The security is pretty high, and you’ll get noticed — that’s why undergrads have called it “the bubble.”
Maybe try Stanford? According to my roommate, you probably wouldn’t get noticed at her alma mater.
And for the record, I loved Columbia. I still love Columbia. It would be great to go back — but I’d do it legit.
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