An Open Letter To The Students Of Columbia

Written by

We present a letter from Eric Cohn, CC ’16, in reaction and response to today’s events on campus.

Dear You,

I do not know your pain; I cannot know it. As hard as we try we cannot comprehend what goes on inside another. But we can try; we can reach out in understanding and solidarity and compassion. And this letter forms my outstretched arm.

The first time it got real for me was like a dream. In bed on another weekend night—while my roommates and suite mates and classmates solidified their friendships and laughed and posted to Facebook—I looked out my open window. It would be so easy, I thought, if I were to sit on the ledge of that window to just slip off: to plummet nine stories—to escape. I imagined myself doing that, and it just felt so easy. It was almost a comfort.

For nearly three semesters here at Columbia, I was miserable. I felt lost, trapped, meaningless, and alone. I did not have the energy to wake up in the morning; work that should have taken minutes took hours if not days. But no one understood; no one saw the true inner pain. I kept it inside, and so everyone thought I was all right. But I was not all right. I hated Columbia and myself and my life, and it was all my fault. At least, that’s what I told myself.

The transition to this big, challenging, different school was supposed to be seamless, I thought. It would be easy being out to everyone instead of closeted, to make new friends with people on my hall, and finally to self-actualize into the person I was meant to be. That’s the narrative we are told by our predecessors and by our friends and by Facebook. And so when this did not happen—when I was floundering and struggling—I blamed myself. I scoured the Internet looking for people with similar experiences to mine. A google search of “lonely second semester freshman year” soon became “first semester sophomore year,” and the results were increasingly scant and distant. I did not see myself in them.

And this is why I write this letter to you. I want this letter to be a realistic experience of what it’s like to suffer at school, to feel lost and tired, not only to give you hope that you will get out of it, but to tell you it’s okay to be where you are right now. It’s okay and normal and understandable to feel this way at college. It’s one of the biggest changes of your life: despite what they tell you, it’s not supposed to be easy—and it never is. And most of all: it’s not your fault.

You will get out of it, too. For all the hopelessness I felt and all the pro/con transfer lists I made—now in the first semester of my junior year, I am finally beginning to get acclimated. It just took some extra time.

Ultimately, toughing it out at this school was the best decision I could have made. I have learned so much about myself and others that I am a different, wiser person than I was in the fall of 2012. And I do have friends; I do have a community. And most of all, I have a home.

I promise you will get there too. And though it might not look like the picture-perfect college experience you always imagined, it will be yours and you will be better because of it. It just might take some extra time.

So while this school might not be as supportive as it should be for people like us, I think we can (and must) support each other. You are strong, and I have faith in you.




  1. that was lovely  

    Relapsed into some pretty self destructing behavior since I heard about Joshua's passing, but this helped some. Makes me want to talk to someone.

    Thank you.

  2. Ramon  

    Eric, thank you for the letter. Reaching out to each other and supporting each other is important. But that's only one part of the puzzle: we *must* insist that administrators, advisors and disability coordinators do better because it is totally in their power if they so choose it to be to help us out when we're dealing with intransigent professors that make our life more difficult than it needs to be, adding to our wholly consuming sense of despair. It is totally unacceptable that a professor would deny a student who has just come out of a psychiatric hospitalization the opportunity to hand in assignments a week or two later so that the student is forced to take a medical leave of absence, unable to get it together to meet this demand. Only when that happens will there be fewer medical leaves of absences, fewer delayed graduations, fewer drop outs and fewer deaths.

  3. ppf  

    Thanks for your courage to write and post this. As a freshman who made many poor decisions this past month and a half, and who still sometimes feels disillusioned about the college transition (as you did), who's been there with the "lonely first semester freshman" and "low gpa first semester college" and "help i've ruined my reputation" google searches, it's nice to hear that others who have felt lost and tired have been able to overcome that part of life and get to healthy/happy places.

    This is totally cheesy but one of my favorite quotes is this one by Donald Glover: "I got really lost last year. But I can't be lonely tho. Cause we're all here. We're all stuck here. I wanted to make something that says, no matter how bad you fuck up, or mistakes you've made during the year, your life, your eternity, you're always allowed to be better. You're always allowed to grow up. If you want."

  4. Anonymous  

    this reads like a letter convincing people to keep paying columbia tuition, rather than a response to a real tragedy that happened to a real person.

    "toughing it out"... wonderful implication there.

    this trend of turning other people's struggles and tragedies into an unending parade of backhanded self-congratulations every single year is ineffective, infantalizing, and, frankly, sickening.

    you used to be better than this, bwog.

    • uhhh

      sounds like someone wanted to bitch. this letter is lovely. so just don't.

    • Anonymous  

      to elaborate:

      admitting you need help is not weak. taking a year off on medical leave does not mean you are weak. realizing columbia is not the place for you and transferring is not weak.

      it's just school. not even "the" school, but "a" school. you can live without columbia. just because you had a good experience staying at columbia doesn't mean it's the right choice for everyone.

  5. Anonymous  

    I understand that this letter was well-intentioned, but I also think it is irresponsible. Speaking as a transfer student, I'm all too familiar with the "tough it out" argument. You seem to be arguing that things will get better -- that if students find the pain unbearable, they just need to wait it out.

    I agree that moments of intense pain abate -- that it is best to stay alive during moments where you find life unbearable. But I disagree that students should "tough it out" at Columbia if they are incredibly miserable. There are other places in the world where an individual can succeed.

    I understand that you experienced incredible pain for a time here, but then things got better for you. I'm sorry you felt so badly during that time. However, because your pain decreased, you are implying that things will definitely get better for students, provided they tough it out.

    I disagree. If students are unhappy here -- the kind of unhappy that makes them want to die -- they should know that Columbia is not the only place in the world for success and that they can achieve their full potential elsewhere.

    I am NOT saying that all students with depression should leave Columbia. I am saying that, as someone who is extremely depressed, one of the worst contributors to my frantic feelings is the idea that there is no way out. There is no where but Columbia. And that everyone else who is miserable stays.

    • ppf  

      Agreed. Do what makes you feel fulfilled, and what you think will make you fulfilled in the future. In some cases that may be leaving Columbia.

      Just wanted to add that a good support community (counselors, advisers, peers) is more important than ever, to create an environment in which students can think and talk honestly about major life decisions (like whether or not someone should leave Columbia) with each other--because these (fairly intimidating!) decisions cannot be made alone. And when helping others make life decisions, administrators and students alike shouldn't act/speak in self interest. We must have a conversation about what it really means to live a good life, and the role community plays in that.

    • hmm  

      irresponsibility is a heavy word to throw at this. the opening states that this letter is meant as an attempt at an outstretched arm, at expressing understanding, solidarity, and compassion. it's not meant as a "how to" in beating depression. the author acknowledges that everyone's experience w mental health is different, and i think the implication there is that everyone's way of making "things get better" is also different and unique.

      the primary point of this letter is provide that google result for "lonely first semester sophomore" that many of us have looked for, and i think it does.

    • Anonymous

      I agree with you, but people have the false impression that grass is greener. It is not. No campus is any better. It is generally the pressure we put on ourselves and from our family that does not go away no matter where you go that is the problem.

    • Anonymous  

      My advice, based on my own experience, is to take some time off. I was really depressed, and I took a year off after freshman year. It gives perspective. You don't have to commit to leaving Columbia, but being outside of the bubble, and having time to work on your personal health and developing a healthier perspective on school can do a lot. You may decide to return to Columbia - I did. Alternatively, with the space to think, it might be easier to realize that Columbia isn't good for you, isn't making you happy, and that it's not wrong to find someplace better for you. If anyone is feeling like they are stuck here, they can't leave/transfer, they've committed permanently to this place, but it is making you miserable and depressed, I implore you to try this. It was the best decision I made, and the two people I've convinced to do it thanked me for convincing them.

  6. CC'16  

    Eric, thank you. Thank you for sharing this. I felt like that at some point especially towards the beginning of my time at Columbia (I'm a junior now). It's crazy how much it can make you feel alone in this; like everyone else seems to be doing fine and you're the only one who's not adjusting; who's feeling that lonely.

    So I want to thank you, seriously, from the bottom of my heart. I genuinely appreciate you telling us this and admire you for doing so. Thank you for showing me that I wasn't alone in this, and that after all it does get better.

    Thank you, Eric.

  7. From one to another  

    I really appreciate your letter. As a sophomore, I can really empathize with your experience of not fitting in, of watching all the other first-years bond and forge friendships while I slowly watch myself excluded from my floor, my NSOP group, and all the friendships that had been created before I even got here. At least it seems that it's not too late to find myself, make new friends with people who are willing to be friends, and become a part of this community. For once, it feels like I have time.

  8. mika

    I'm curious, what makes people depressed at Columbia, is it feeling like a failure? I know everyone has had their own personal reason, but is fear the main force behind all of this? Are all the kids killing themselves because they are afraid to face the reality in saying they messed up, in saying they can't do it, that it isn't for them? I know it's a trip down the rabbit hole once you slip in, but what is the thought that sleeps in bed with you at night? Is it that you are not good enough?


    Who or what is stimulating this behavior? Is it campus culture, administration,our parents and hometown supporters, our h.s. nemesis waiting to face us on our trip back home? Is it society dictating to us that there is only one form of success--> h.s. valedictorian, ivy league, then Wall Street/Rhodes Scholarship/Law School, then success and happiness? Are we exhausted from our culture constantly raping us from emotional stability by selling to us through emotion rather than utility?

    So I recently heard something crazy like a single person sees 5,000 marketing messages a day...and since the days of Eward Bernays (read his piece Propaganda dated 1928, the everyday consumer (aka everyone with a dime of purchasing power)is made felt obligated to purchase things to achieve happiness.I'm not going to get into details on how this is done exactly, but just look it up. The most popular triggers marketers try to target are fear, obligation, and love.


    Students are getting particularly stepped on, and even by their own professors trying to make just as much of a profit on their books' 10th edition as they did the first year they publish their book. It is absolutely ridiculous that students are expected to purchase $400+ of textbooks each semester and to have publishers and professors team up to keep the prices high for a book that has 15 pages different compared to the previous edition that won't get bought back for even $7 when purchased brand new for $95 two semesters before. There should be a text book strike sometime at Columbia to force publishers to stop trying to rape an already financially struggling group of people(students, with loans, a full class schedule, and unable to work a full time salary but expected to be a functioning and tax paying citizen)...point I'm getting at, is students wake up. You are powerful, be an agent of change and be critical of how things are and why they are the way they are. Don't simply blame administration, they have tasks to fulfill because their duties have already been predetermined for them, but understand what their position is and understand what position you are in. Be intelligent and remember, everything is a business, absolutely everything is meant to turn a profit.

    Also, we are a democracy. Hamilton on democracy,
    “It had been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience had proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”
    Alexander Hamilton June 21, 1788

    Fight for freedom,not for democracy, but for freedom of your mind. May another soul gone from our Columbia family remind us to stay on course.

    -CC student

    • Year Off '15

      I'm not sure what spurred you to write a comment like this, but I want you to know you're getting downvoted because you sound fucking insane. This is a heartfelt letter to an alienated student body wondering if anyone is safe from an oppressive environment. This isn't your CC final.

  9. Anonymous

    I had the same horrible thoughts my freshman year in John Jay. The idea that any one person has gone through their time at Columbia not feeling inadequate at some point is ludicrous. The danger is when we hide that and put on a pseudo-confident face for the outside world. I went through my freshman year thinking nobody else was having a hard time -- that their transition was easy.

    Speak up. Everybody has had trouble with this. Talk with peers and be open. They will help you and guide you. They've been there. Our fear of showing weakness puts us and others in danger.

  10. Anonymous

    Eric, thank you for your beautiful heartfelt letter. You are obviously a strong, brave person. You helped other people today. Best of luck to you and your positive future.

  11. CC'12

    I absolutely do not want to sound like I'm trivializing the pain that so many Columbia students go through, but I truly do not understand the source of this anguish. I suppose I was just privileged and lucky, but I never felt this way in my four years of college. Sure, midterms and final were stressful times, and I was feeling pretty blue the month or so before graduation, but apart from that I was pretty much always happy. Can someone clearly explain to me what so many people find so unbearable about Columbia? Like I said above, I don't want to sound disrespectful--I am sincerely concerned for the emotional well-being of Columbia students and would like to become more well-informed.

  12. Anon

    Thank you for writing this. I wish someone had shown me this letter before I went to school. Before going off to college, I never had any troubles adjusting to new situations, then first semester I cried every single day. It is sometimes unexplainable why certain people are affected by the college transition more than others, but at least creating a dialogue about the difficulties can help.

    • Anonymous  

      coming into being in the world; moving from adolescence into adulthood; thousands of miles away from their families; culture shock; bringing with them their own demons from the past; add to it the outsized academic stress (like a poster said, harvard students only take 4 class, 5 is an option at yale and there's no grading at MIT the first yr.) and peer pressure and you've got a lethal combination. these are well known and well documented things.

  13. Anonymous

    This letter was a way to let other people suffering know that they are not alone. The letter is not meant to tell people that they should stick it out at this school. Everyone has different experiences and different ways of coping with tough times. By criticizing this article you are taking away from someone else's extremely painful experience. Let's praise Eric for his bravery, not criticize him. This is a beautiful piece that reminds people that they are not alone in their suffering. For some people, transferring is, best, for others staying is better, different things work for different people. Please remember that everyone has different experiences. The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone, and sometimes reaching out to others and gaining solidarity can be an amazing coping mechanism. Thank you Eric for your bravery and for writing this great letter.

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