It’s high school graduation season and huge shout out to those who are taking that life-changing walk across the stage, cheered on by family and friends. Tassels and mortar boards are flying as inspirational words of wisdom are imparted to the eager grads. It’s finally time to celebrate their accomplishments as they begin the next chapter of their lives. For many, with diplomas in hand, the next step will be attending college, which is certainly a very exciting time, but at the same time, a leap into the great unknown.
But for one group of Ivy League-bound students a few years ago, that future became a little brighter thanks to one of their own. Before they even hit the bricks at Columbia University in the City of New York, almost 300 members of the Class of 2020 had an ally as they faced their new life together.
Arman Azad, who was an incoming freshman at Columbia during the summer of 2016, created an Elfster Gift Exchange as a way for these first-year students to connect and get to know one another on a more personal level to ease the transition to college life. And by all measures, he certainly gets our vote for ‘Most Likely to Succeed’!
A Gift Exchange to Feel Connected
“Our exchange group consist[ed] of students from Columbia’s Class of 2020, and most of us were graduating from high school at the time, with the exception of those who took a gap year,” Arman explained. “When we received our acceptance letters, we were also invited to join a Facebook page consisting of our fellow students. Some people [were] very active, making friends on the page or organizing local meet-ups, and others [were] quieter, just reading what other students post. A couple of my friends from the group and I had floated the idea of bringing each other gifts from our hometowns, and we thought, ‘why not do this with our entire class?’ “
“The Facebook page had about 1,700 students in it, and I’m so happy that 300 of them signed up for our exchange,” he added. “It may seem like a small number relative to the group as a whole, but to get that many high school seniors to sign up for anything is a feat in and of itself, in my opinion. In the Facebook group, we posted a link and instructions to the Elfster exchange, and every day more and more people signed up—so many that we decided to extend the deadline to register through the summer.”
New Student Orientation Program Highlight
Members of Arman’s group, affectionately known as “Columbaes Class of 2020 NSOP Exchange,” brought tokens from their hometown to share with a fellow classmate they were paired with in this gift exchange, “no matter how cliché or authentic.”
“NSOP stands for New Student Orientation Program, and it occurs during the first week of school, a time when students bond with their fellow classmates, participate in class activities, and learn more about their school,” Arman said. “The exchange was organized independently, and it allowed every student to have at least one friend during the first week of school.”
“College can be a transformative and enriching experience, but it can also be an intimidating and frightening one,” he added. “By pairing our fellow classmates with one of their peers, everyone had a reason to talk to someone with whom they might not have conversed had they not participated in the exchange. The gift exchange also allowed students to message their partner on Facebook before school started. Whether they chose to meet up in a dorm to exchange the gift or grab coffee and discuss their upbringings, the exchange allowed for the establishment of not just meaningful interpersonal relationships, but also the sharing of cultures and life experiences.”
“Columbia has one of the most diverse undergraduate student bodies in the world, and with over 17% of our class consisting of international students, we felt that there was so much potential to learn more about cultures different from our own,” said Arman. “Thus, our ‘Columbaes’ exchange was born, whose name is a combination of “Columbia” and “bae,” the latter being a common and somewhat comedic term of endearment among people our age.”
A Diverse Gift Exchange to Bring Students Together
So how do you go about organizing such a diverse group of students from all over the world?
According to Arman, “When deciding to organize the exchange, one of our concerns was how, logistically, we would be able to manage such a project with hundreds of students whom we had never met. I googled around a bit, and I was honestly so surprised—and thankful—that something like Elfster existed. It was so simple to set-up and use, and required a negligible amount of effort on the part of the organizer.”
“And who knows—the person with whom you’re paired might just end up being your best friend (or maybe even your significant other!),” he added. “The random assignment of pairs also ensures that people can make become acquainted with someone without the limitations of stereotypical social parameters, such as socioeconomic status, athleticism, or arbitrary ‘popularity.’ “
The idea of the exchange is two-fold: on the one hand, it is meant to establish relationships among our class, but on the other hand, it is meant to foster a greater understanding of our diverse backgrounds and histories. With so many participants, Elfster is the only place I know of that provides a platform to do that.Arman Azad
Elfster is proud to support this amazing group of Ivy League students and help foster a feeling of community in such a large learning environment.
“The students in Columbia’s Class of 2020 come from every state in our nation and over 90 countries worldwide, but that diversity is most meaningful when it is understood, appreciated, and shared,” Arman explained. “By creating our gift exchange, we hoped that each student brought to college with them something that is meaningful to them and indicative of their hometown. For someone from NYC, that may be a cheesy ‘I <3 NY’ memento, whereas, for someone from Indonesia, it might be a cultural garb or authentic tea. We kept the price limit under ten dollars because we also understood that, at a school like Columbia, there is not only geographic diversity, but also economic diversity. Not everyone comes from a wealthy or privileged background, and we hope that the ten dollar gift limit allowed everyone to participate.”
“Some people come to college with established groups of friends, but, for others, the first conversation on campus may happen during orientation,” he continues. “With our gift exchange, we hoped to facilitate such conversations, ensuring that everyone has someone to talk to during the first week of school. The quarterback of the football team may not usually hang out with the future head of the chess club, but both probably have fascinating and unique life stories. I hope that the gift exchange brought people like that together.”
And Arman certainly had more than just gifts in mind when he created this exchange to help his fellow classmates: “Getting a present is always fun, but my hope for the gift exchange wasn’t really that people receive cute souvenirs, but that students—and our class as a whole—came closer together.”
If you are a recent high school graduate ready to head out into the big, bright world too, why not take a note from Arman and help your university’s incoming class connect on Elfster. It’s easy to get started and stay connected. Need help? You can reach us via Facebook here. Tweet us @elfster or catch us on Instagram @elfster.