What’s it like to be a student at Columbia?

At the University Archives, we are frequently asked about former Columbia students. While we can help users identify which are the best resources to find alumni, we’ve been thinking lately about student life more broadly: not just who was a student but what resources do we have that help to explain what going to Columbia was like.

Students in dorm room. Photo by the International News Photos By-line Feature Dept. Scan #0648. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

To address questions about Student Life, we recently compiled a rather comprehensive list of available resources: from the basics to some archival gems which are just waiting to be discovered. 

One of our favorite sources for all things Columbia is the student newspaper, the Spectator. From their first issues in 1877 to 2015, the paper has been digitized and is easily searchable. This resource is one of our go-tos for all things Columbia but, if you’d like to move beyond the paper, the research guide offers information on how to access yearbooks, the humor magazine Jester, and the more literary Blue and White. Another valuable, and perhaps unexpected, source for campus life is Columbia College Today, also available online from 1954 to the present. While alumni magazines are known for class notes and other alumni-related news, CCT has routinely featured articles on life “around the quads” and you can find entire issues devoted to religion on campus, the core curriculum, the Black student experience, coeducation, and more.

In addition to the publications, the Student Life research guide features a number of archival collections. You can find first-person accounts such as diaries, memoirs and even letters sent home to parents from former Columbia students. And what is college life without classes and homework? Here you will find archival collections with student work: notebooks and lecture notes, papers and drafts, and even lab and field reports. There are so many students who held on to these and now they can offer us a glimpse of what it was like to sit at a lecture by such legendary Columbia professors as John Burgess, John Dewey, Paul Kristeller, Jacques Barzun, Robert Merton, and Lionel Trilling. Finally, the guide includes materials related to student groups and residential life: from the Philolexian Society, the oldest student group on campus started back in 1802, to the evolution of dormitories, which only started on the Morningside campus in 1905.

If you have any questions about these sources or any other research needs, please feel free to reach out to us (uarchives@columbia.edu).