In this piece from the Autumn issue of The Blue & White, Anna Bahr, BC ’14, introduces us to the interesting personality of the president of the CU Dems.
You will probably hear Janine Balekdjian, CC ’13, before you see her. Though diminutive in stature, her voice more than compensates for her petite frame. As Peter Andrews, CC ’14, and fellow member of the trombone section in the CU Marching Band puts it, “When we play at games, one of our goals is to be loud. And, let’s face it: Janine has a built-in advantage.” Her distinctive laugh—forceful and unrestrained—interrupts otherwise half-hearted swells of giggling students in lecture.
No part of Janine is muted. Kaley Hanenkrat, BC ’11, describes it perfectly—Janine is “the opposite of apathy.” Her passion charges even the day-to-day. She is decidedly against lunch, both the meal and the concept (she resents her body for needing sustenance, because “It’s just such a waste of time!”), and will explain her aversion in a monologue punctuated with emphatic gesticulation. To describe her with simple verbs and adjectives would unfairly dilute her energy. She doesn’t talk; she rants. Injustices do not annoy her; they are infuriating. Halfway isn’t her style.
Janine is that imaginary student you fantasize about meeting after your Columbia acceptance letter arrives in the mail; her genuine enthusiasm is contagious. On a typical weekend you can find her phonebanking for President Obama, passing through Pennsylvania to canvass for swing voters, and walking women past hostile protesters at abortion clinics in the Bronx. Her writing is regularly published in The Nation and The Huffington Post. She accomplishes nearly all of this in heels.
In New York, a city in which indifference is often equated with sophistication, her unabashed excitement offers a refreshing break from post-adolescent arrogance. Janine advocates an alternative that makes engagement feel cool. Her need to share her thoughts feels closer to a compulsion than a conscious choice.
“I’m pretty sure I came out of the womb interested in politics,” says Janine. Truly, one conversation with her validates the axiom “the personal is political.” During her unprecedented two-year tenure as president of the Columbia University Democrats, she has redirected the Dems’ energies from an agenda grounded in discussion to one centered on activism. She is responsible for organizing the largest campaign trip in the Dems’ history: 200 students will trek to Ohio on Election Day weekend to “knock on all of the doors,” she says proudly. Peter describes her as nothing short of a “visionary leader.”
“If you tell her you are not a feminist, her feelings will be hurt. [These issues are] hugely important to her as a human, not just as a political apparatus,” says Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, CC ’15, fellow editor of the Feminist Mystique—Columbia’s first feminist publication, which was co-founded by Janine. This is the most confounding component of Janine’s character. For all her investment in partisan campaigns, she equally values personal connections. Hours after screaming at her Republican peers over ideological differences, she will kick back with them to share a game of baseball and a beer.
I had suggested that we get coffee for our interview. Janine does not drink coffee. She’d rather sip on one of her tens of Twinings varieties—“her fuel.” She serves our tea in dainty china and charming heart-shaped strainers. As we finish talking, Janine identifies her only concrete future plan: “I’m just going to keep doing whatever makes me excited and protesting whatever makes me angry. I’ll follow my passions.” She seems incapable of doing anything else, even if she tried.