What happened after my freshman roommate passed away

A reflection on stress and academic pressures at Columbia

At the start of the spring semester, Columbia was struck by what seems to have been one of the hardest and grimmest times ever on campus. This became known as the suicide and death wave where three students lost their lives in a week, after four had lost their lives during the previous fall semester. One of these students was my roommate. His name was Daniel Andreotti.

It was the first week back into spring semester. Halfway through my first year at Columbia, I thought I could finally get it all together and make the most out of my time as a freshman, both academically and socially. I was feeling optimistic, wiser – ready to face this semester. I remember thinking how last semester I never really spent time in my room, or my dorm hall for that matter, and I wanted to change that. Moreover, I never really got close to my roommate, and I thought that was a shame. So I got all sorts of new stuff: a TV, a PS4, some LED lights so that my room would be nicer and I would get to share it with my suitemates.

On Thursday, January 19th I was coming back to my room at 2am. A regular occurrence where I would crash out without trying to wake my roommate up. There was nothing unusual about this night, or the following morning. I got up at 9am, had breakfast with my friends, went to class and came back to my room to pick something up at around 11am. My roommate was still in bed – sometimes he would sleep until past noon – so I just went on trying to be quiet, got my stuff and continued with my day.

Daniel, my roommate

It was around 6pm that same day. I was just getting out of having dinner with friends and I hadn’t been back to my room when I got a phone call from one of my suitemates. I was told that EMS was there. It turns out my roommate never woke up. He was being taken to the hospital. And EMS was asking for me.

I got to my suite as fast as I could. I was met by the sight of him on a stretcher and EMS students surrounding him, trying to put on a mask on him. He was breathing very heavily, his chest puffing in and out uncontrollably, his body shaking. No one acknowledged my existence when I walked in. I was merely a spectator to this event taking place right before my eyes. It felt surreal. Just a couple of hours ago he was in his bed. How could he be like this now? It just didn’t add up, and among the confusion I couldn’t find any words to let out. One of the EMS students recognized me and gestured for me to go away.

“I’m the roommate” I said, softly. I was approached by one of the paramedics and a Public Safety officer where I was met by a barrage of questions to which I did not know the answer. What did he take? What did he usually take? When was the last time you saw him? Does he do drugs? Where does he keep them? Where does he get them from? Does he have any medical conditions we should know of? I answered as much as I could. I knew he smoked weed and dabbled with other drugs unknown to me. He once told me he had Asperger’s syndrome. That was about as much as I knew about the person who had shared a room with me for an entire semester.

Of course, we all thought he would get out of it. We imagined him coming back the next day as if nothing had happened. We imagined the jokes we would share with him after. We were both angry and relieved. Angry because he had done something stupid that put his life in danger, but relieved because we thought we were sure it was nothing more than a scare. Nothing more but a lesson for him, from which he would recover and grow as a person. But that day never came.

The following day, I was on the subway when I got a text from one of my suitemates. “His overdose seems to have killed him. The doctors say there’s nothing they can do” read the first of many texts. He was now on life support.

I had never had anyone close die before in my life. It’s an odd feeling when you hear the news for the first time. A jolt of confusion, shame, grief, sorrow, anger, and numbness all at once. Something unlike anything I have experienced before. I remember the first thing I felt, however, was a whiff of disbelief to which I tried to hold on to. How could something like that ever happen? Why me? Why him? It all just seemed to be happening in a reality far from mine. It was raining that day, and I was going downtown to run some errands with some friends. I was doing my best to distract myself with my friends when I got a phone call from my mother. Just a random phone call, nothing special. I debated whether or not to share what had happened that same day. The truth is, I didn’t know how to feel or what to do. So I told my mother. She let out a wail of angst and broke into a cry immediately. Maybe I should be acting like that. Why am I so numb?

When I came back to campus a doctor from Columbia’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CPS) visited the suite to talk to all of us as a group. That night I couldn’t sleep in my room. When I walked into my room by myself it all dawned upon me. The fact that it was true, this was my new reality.

On Saturday morning I was coming back to my room after staying over at a friend’s when Residential Life came to visit the suite. They basically explained the situation, offered me a new room and told me that if I needed to talk to anyone they were there for me, and the CPS doctor from last night was also there for me. They also explained that the family would be coming to the room for a while and it would be best if I wasn’t around, which was OK. The last place I wanted to be in was my room.

After that night, I slept in my room and on Monday morning I was woken up to a knock on my door where I received the news. Daniel was dead. He had officially passed away. That same day I talked to the NYPD. I shared what I had learned over that weekend. Apparently he had had been using a synthetic opioid.

For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t help but think that the last time he was in the room, I slept in a bed right next to him. That night he was snoring a bit louder than usual and I contemplated the idea of trying to wake him up to get him to stop. But instead I just went to bed. I felt shame. That snoring echoed in my head for days and days. It took me a while to accept the fact that there was no way I could have known. No way I could have gone back and done something different. I couldn’t keep that thought in my head, it was too much to handle and it ate away at me. I’m sure I’m not the only one that felt guilty for a moment. I guess it is simple human nature to point fingers and try to blame something or someone, even ourselves. But it was an accident. It is not on me, on his friends, or on any of our suitemates. We all had to accept the fact that it was beyond our control. There was simply no way we could have known better.

At the start of my second semester at Columbia University, I had one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had in my life, following my roommate’s death. Many things happened and changed all at once. In light of all the recent deaths at Columbia and discussions raised regarding mental health, and my mother’s concern for my own wellbeing, I decided that it was in my best interest to make an appointment at Columbia’s CPS.

I won’t lie, at the start I tried to avoid it. I felt silly going to CPS. I thought that meant that I was not OK, that I was weak because I needed help. Another part of me thought I didn’t need help at all. I thought I had no need for CPS, I was too OK to actually need to go.

After a week of going back and forth, I decided that I should at least give it a chance. I contacted the doctor who came to visit the suite once. He was only available at the most inconvenient times. I was told to call CPS and ask for a “postvention” and that they would accommodate me as soon as possible. I did so and was given an appointment for the following day. The options were, again, at the most inconvenient times for me so I opted for the latest one at 6pm. The doctor was very helpful, it seemed as if she had been expecting to see me, “the roommate.” Why couldn’t they just look for me in the first place then?

This took place in early February. During that time I was also in communication with Residential Life, who said that they would help me with whatever I needed. They gave me the key to a room so that I would be free to go back and forth as much as I wanted or needed, and I also requested that the mattress be changed. I wasn’t sure whether or not I actually wanted to move out or not. I remember the CPS doctor mentioning that sometimes in life, especially when dealing with the death of someone, people just have to go on about their lives. They don’t always get a chance to change their living situation, to make a drastic change in order to stop thinking about the person they lost. People keep living in the same place despite the fact that the loved one they lost lived with them there. So I thought, maybe running away wasn’t the best thing for me. My suitemates were also around and I felt like we had all grown closer after this experience. I felt that I would be turning down way too much if I left. So I stayed.

One day, I remember walking into my room and I was swept off my feet. All of his stuff was gone. Poof. It was there one day, now it wasn’t. His bed and desk just like they were during move-in day. I was never given a heads-up that the room would be cleaned that day. Moreover, whoever did the cleaning apparently thought it would be a good idea if they left some of his stuff on my desk. Stuff that was probably in his drawers or closet. I was bewildered. How could they be so insensitive? I thought everything up to now had been done carefully with some tact. But not this. This just showed complete disregard towards me. It seemed as if Residential Life had forgotten about me. Moreover, the one request I had for Residential Life, which was to change the mattress, never happened.

I kept seeing CPS, it was especially helpful after a moment like that. However, it seemed as if my doctor’s schedule suddenly got busier and busier as we made progress with our appointments. Originally, I had intentions of seeing CPS throughout the whole semester. I enjoyed the experience of just sharing my feelings and thoughts to someone I didn’t know. But eventually, the time between appointments became longer and longer and times became more inconvenient. After five or six appointments I stopped showing up. Between the academic burden of class, homework and many other factors, it became hard to make time for CPS. Neither my doctor, nor CPS, nor Residential Life reached out again. Maybe they thought I was alright and didn’t need help. Maybe they were too busy.

During my time with the doctor, I learned that students are limited to 10 appointments in a semester before they are put under review to see whether they need more appointments or to be referred to an off-campus doctor. Overall, I would say my experience with my doctor was alright. However, I feel that they could have done more to make sure that I was actually OK, considering the position that I was in. A month after it all happened, I was no longer a concern to anyone and it sure felt that way. I was never informed of when I would lose access to the single room that had been given to me but I still have the keycard (which of course doesn’t work). They never asked how I was ever again. I can’t but help think about how the students that are going through depression, anxiety and/or many other things cope with everything. No wonder they end up feeling alone.

Now I can’t help but think about what is wrong with Columbia. Seven deaths in an academic year shouldn’t be taken lightly. Clearly, there is a bigger problem on campus, bigger than just CPS or the administration. The more I thought about it, the more I tried to put my finger on it, and the more apparent it became to me throughout this semester.

Columbia is unnecessarily hard, unfair and apathetic towards its students. It’s constantly nominated as one of the most sleep-deprived and most Adderall-addicted schools in the US. It’s something that resonates across campus and among students, and I have personally witnessed it many times during this year. The academic workload and the pressures that students face here are unparalleled and easily regarded as the hardest among all Ivy League schools. Not only that, but it seems as if the administration is negligent towards acknowledging the fact that there is a problem on campus regarding its stress culture. It is not clear to me how free cookies at the library and hosting dogs tackles the stress in a student who is depressed and overwhelmed by the academic workload or in a student who feels the need to take pills in order to keep up with work.

The administration has a long way to go in terms of recognizing the flaws within Columbia. In terms of what Columbia could do, there are many things that come to mind. In my opinion, there are three aspects Columbia could improve on: the grading system, the Core Curriculum and CPS.

First, first semester freshman year is more intense than it should be, and this is a problem for new students – it makes them feel out of place. It is a common occurrence that freshmen come to college as the best students from their high school. Suddenly they’re not at the top anymore – they’re faced with mediocrity for the first time. This clearly takes a toll on a student’s perception of Columbia and hinders how they adapt to a new academic environment for the following four years.

To make this transition easier, a pass/fail grading policy could be adopted for at least the first semester. This way students wouldn’t feel overwhelmed and trapped in a rat-race when they arrive at Columbia and would instead be able to have a better time adapting and trying out things outside their comfort zone. Moreover, eliminating the concept of an A+ as a grade could also help mitigate pressure and stress among students who view an A+ as unattainable and feel unrewarded for their hard work. But perhaps one of the most effective measures to tackle academic pressures would be to incentivize professors to offer more midterms during the semester with the purpose of reducing the weighting that finals have on the overall grade. This would lead to a less stressful finals week for students, a time that I witnessed to be devastating to some during this academic year. Some classes have finals with a weighting of up to 50 percent of the overall grade, which means students are more prone to becoming stressed and overwhelmed when they have a lot depending on a single exam.

Second, the Core Curriculum was a great idea in the 20th Century, but times are different now. While one of the things that appealed to me the most about Columbia was the idea of obtaining a well-rounded liberal education, I’ve realized that it comes at the expense of my freedom to explore different topics of my interest. On one hand, I enjoy the community that the Core creates on campus where many students take the same classes for the first year or two. On the other hand, I also found that the way the Core Curriculum is set up allows little wiggle room for students to actually choose classes that they feel like exploring and instead students are forced to meet a certain number of credits from a given list of classes and follow a predetermined track that does not necessarily represent a student’s best academic, or even non-academic, interests. What this leads to, most of the time, is students either loving it or hating it. On top of that, one of the biggest problems with having so many requirements is that students have no room for mistakes, if they fail a class then in most cases that could mean that they don’t get to graduate on time or will have to overload for a semester. While the Core Curriculum is a concept that I’m fond of, it should certainly be revised to allow a bit more freedom choosing classes so that students have an easier time pursuing double majors and minors without as many restrictions.

Third, CPS needs to grow urgently in order to meet the needs of a stressed overwhelmed student population. Whether students have a problem or not, they should still have access to a professional that they can talk to at any time because it’s easy to feel alone in this campus. It’s easy to isolate oneself unconsciously, and no one is paying attention because everyone is busy. There’s a lot that could be done here. From more CPS counselors to appointments over weekends. It would go a long way if these counselors had some initiative to reach out to students who they know are going through something in order to nurture a better, more personal help to individual students.

While I only speak from my experience as a freshman, I think that it is important that we should raise awareness of the harsh realities that students undergo if we ever hope to foster a healthier environment on campus. More importantly, if we, the students, want to bring a change for the improvement of the community, it is up to us to show support for each other and remind those around us that they are not alone. After all, CPS is only one way to tackle the problem. But if we want to solve it, we have to go to the root. In the end, I can’t help but wonder what has gone so wrong with a college that they value their 4.0 GPA more than their own wellbeing – and even their life. Right?

Columbia University