Anonymous Posts on Student Hunger and Homelessness Lead to Change at Columbia

The scenes portrayed in brochures for Columbia University are in stark contrast to the daunting stories told in anonymous social media posts.

“I know Barnard’s not going to help me get winter housing. I can just feel it,” said an anonymous commenter on the Columbia University Class Confessions Facebook page in November. “There are so many offers of people offering free housing but the last two times i got into a free housing situation with another person, i ended up getting sexually assaulted and I don’t trust that type of living situation. Suggestions?”

Shivani Vikuntam, a May graduate who served as Student Government president of Columbia University’s Barnard College this past year said the page was important in showing the university administration that students were struggling.

“When that Facebook page came out it was a really powerful tool in a way to show administrators that there are real issues that students are facing, because you hear about it, but there isn’t always a way to quantify it,” she said. “It made us re-evaluate what our plans were for the year.”

Ms. Vikuntam said posts like the one above led Barnard administrators to change the college’s winter break housing policy in November, one example of more than a half dozen policies Columbia student groups and administrators initiated after Toni Airaksinen, a Barnard junior, created the page in the spring of 2015.

Other changes that student organizations and administrators implemented include an emergency meal fund, dining hall hours during spring break, meal vouchers, a more publicized fund for low-income students, an advisory committee for first-generation college students at Barnard and lower costs for student events.

Ms. Airaksinen, a 19-year-old urban studies major, said because of working as social media director for the Columbia student chapter of First-Generation Low-Income Partnership and having grown up poor, she knew of students who were struggling to make ends meet at the university, which charges roughly $50,000 a year for tuition and fees.

She said she created the page to give them a platform to get the word out about the need without having to feel embarrassed, and comments began flooding in on everything from book costs to homelessness.

“There was kind of just a shock that went around campus, partially because of the large amount of media that this got,” Ms. Airaksinen said. “And so it kind of inspired a lot of different people to take action: people on student council, student government, faith-based organizations.”

Federal student aid data from 2013 estimates that more than 58,000 college students in America struggle with homelessness. With its price tag and location in upper Manhattan, Columbia is one of the most expensive options in the metropolitan area.

Anna Demidova, 28, a Columbia College senior who was homeless during her first year at the university, said she was familiar with the struggles other students endured, but was still surprised by some of the hardships described in the posts.

“Someone was talking about being a sugar baby, engaging in sex work to pay for school,” she said, adding that she thinks the page has been a great driver of conversations.

Ms. Airaksinen, founder of the page, said though the initiatives have helped, more needs to be done at the university to address financial need at a deeper level.

“At the end of the day a lot of the policy changes are indeed Band-Aid solutions,” she said.

Sample Posts from Columbia University Class Confessions Facebook page