There is no denying the value of cultivating a sense of community among college students, especially Columbia students who are easily isolated in the sprawl of a city campus. Columbia’s administration constantly encourages collaboration—“find your creative posse”—but one of the many criticisms Columbia faces is its lack of communal spaces for students. Although Columbia does not have a typical college campus, it should have more places for students to congregate—especially over meals.
Columbia does not have its own cafeteria. The campus has three cafes that offer coffee, tea and some food, but these cafes are few and far between and do not offer extensive menus or allergy-specific menus. The University Center has a cafeteria, but with meal plans only available to on-campus students and strange operating hours, the UC leaves much to be desired in offering food and drink to the campus community and a place to meet, network and socialize.
Columbia is settled in the heart of downtown Chicago, which offers many options when it comes to dining and groceries. From Jewel Osco to Trader Joe’s and with a 7-Eleven on every other corner, the city offers many places for students to go and spend money. Why pay for a meal plan if Flaco’s Tacos is right across the street? And if each dorm has some sort of kitchen access, there does not seem to be a need for a Columbia-exclusive cafeteria.
Although the city may offer all the things a student may need, there are certain benefits of a Columbia cafeteria that are overlooked—benefits that warrant consideration as the administration moves forward in redefining Columbia’s greatness.
Cafeterias play a major role in student retention rates, according to a 2009 Insight Into Student Services iJournal article. A cafeteria would serve as more than just a place to grab a bite to eat, but a place to do homework, hang out and meet fellow students outside of the classroom. Cafeterias keep students on campus and engaged in the college community rather than having them retreat to their own places, further preventing them from making professional connections and new friends.
A cafeteria would not only serve the students, but also the college as a whole. A cafeteria is an investment Columbia would benefit from for years to come. For parents of incoming students, seeing a fully functioning cafeteria that is available to all students—whether they have a meal plan or not—is reassuring and a major selling point. For incoming students, the draw of a cafeteria that offers a wide variety of food and drink is undeniable—being able to grab a meal without worrying about the cash in your pocket is essential to college students who also happen to be starving artists.
Time is also a factor. Cooking and grocery shopping take time that could otherwise be spent working on assignments and projects. Columbia may be encouraging students to be independent and capable by having kitchens in each dorm, but the time it takes away from focusing on more critical priorities can certainly become an issue for many students.
Giving the option of a cafeteria to all students not only bridges gaps between commuters and on-campus students, but also allows students to use their financial aid more effectively. Rather than spending exorbitant amounts of money at grocery stores and restaurants each week students can utilize their financial aid more efficiently if it is put toward a meal plan that is worth it.
If the administration wants to stand by the pillars instilled in its students, then actively pursuing the implementation of Columbia’s own cafeteria should be a top priority—even if a discussion on a slight increase in tuition would be necessary to move forward. A cafeteria would not only offer students a reprieve from the fast-food onslaught of the South Loop and the time-suck cooking can be, but it would offer students a more centralized space for socializing and collaborating.