Published On : Tuesday, May 31 2016
While her family and friends posted frantic online pleas for help and the New York Police Department scoured the city, 19-year-old Nayla Kidd was moving into her new apartment in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.
The then-Columbia University student had last been seen May 5, in a hall on campus. Then, for the next two weeks, she was gone: disappeared from the apartment she shared with three classmates, absent from her exams, noticeably silent as Mother’s Day came and went. (She and her mother are close; last year, Kidd made a video.)
“Her grades are very important to her — to have her not show up to her finals is very troubling,” Alesha Wood, a family friend, told The Washington Post earlier this month. “That is not like Nayla — she loves to go to school.”
Indeed, Kidd was a star science student in high school and a class representative on Columbia’s Engineering Student Council. But even those close to her did not know that at the time of her disappearance, it had been a while since Kidd loved school.
She said as much in an op-ed Sunday in the New York Post, in the first public statement Kidd has made since she was found safe May 16.
[‘Loving and sweet-spirited.’ Missing Ivy League student has not been seen since May 5]
In a piece titled “Why I had to escape my Ivy League life and disappear,” Kidd recounted how the school’s pressure-cooker environment led her to become increasingly ambivalent about her schoolwork. As the search for her intensified, she was trying to erase all traces of the life she knew: “I started to totally disconnect. I deleted my Facebook profile first, shut down my phone and got a prepaid number, took all of my money out of my Chase bank account and opened a new one.”
These measures were prompted by a sense of alienation from Columbia and its expectations, Kidd wrote. Since arriving in college two years ago, she ceased to be the academic all-star that she had been all of her life.
Kidd grew up in Louisville and was raised by a single mom, LaCreis Kidd, who her daughter says conducted cancer research at the University of Louisville. Her mother holds graduate degrees from John Hopkins University and MIT.
Throughout elementary, middle and high school, Kidd’s talent for science showed. She was accepted into the highly competitive Thacher School, a private boarding high school in California where she promptly earned the nickname “The Science Girl.”
The teachers loved her and lavished her with praise, Kidd wrote, using her homework as an example for other students. When she was a sophomore, her chemistry teachers announced before 240 classmates that Kidd had garnered the highest score in a national chemistry competition.
These accolades only fueled Kidd’s drive to succeed, and it culminated in her acceptance to an Ivy League university.
“The ultimate climax was when I got into Columbia,” Kidd wrote. “Because it’s such a prestigious school, it made me feel like I had proven to myself, and everyone around me, that I made it.”
When she got on campus, she decided, naturally, that she would study science. But things didn’t go smoothly.
The day she moved in was her birthday. “I felt really alienated and alone and didn’t find the Columbia students very welcoming,” Kidd wrote. “During my freshman year, I quickly went from star student to slacker.”
In contrast to the tight-knit community at Thacher, Kidd said, “at Columbia I was lucky if a teacher talked to me.” The lack of close connections with her teachers discouraged her from engaging with her schoolwork.
“Even though I was wired to be a good student,” Kidd said, “I didn’t feel inspired. I got through the year, getting B’s and C’s, but I didn’t care. I was just happy the summer arrived.”
Upon her return to classes in September, Kidd signed up for computer-science classes and “hated every minute of it.”
One morning in April, she woke up and realized she needed to make a change and “started plotting [her] escape.”
Weeks before her exams, Kidd stopped going to class altogether. She saved money from her on-campus job, which paid $14 an hour, and sold many of her possessions on Facebook. She found an affordable room in Williamsburg and quietly moved out without her roommates being any the wiser.
She gave her new phone number to a few friends before she left, but she did not tell them where she was going, and she did not answer when they called. She wanted to make sense of her situation without external influences, Kidd said.
She described a spiral of isolation:
I was constantly worrying, and the more they tried to contact me, the more I didn’t feel ready to tell them. The longer I ignored them, the worse it got.
When Mother’s Day arrived, I felt guilty for not calling my mom, but I still couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t face her yet.
I never turned on the TV and stayed immersed in my own world. I had only seen the missing-person fliers online.
If Kidd had been on Facebook, she would have seen the flurry of posts from friends, relatives and classmates under the hashtag #FindingNayla. Many noted that she was not the type to neglect her academics.
Kidd’s disappearance ended after “three big cops” showed up at her new apartment. When she was reunited with her mom at the police station, LaCreis Kidd was reassuring.
“You don’t have to explain anything,” she told her only child. “An investigator told me you might be stripping. Even if you’re a stripper, you’re gonna be the best stripper out there.”
Kidd wrote that she has no plans to return to school. Instead, she wants to make music and work on her writing and modeling careers.
“I always told myself I needed to find gratification through academia, but now I want to find it on my own through the arts,” she wrote. “I finally broke down because I was living a life I thought I should be living instead of living the life I want.”
The New York Post simultaneously published a statement from Kidd’s mother.
The pair usually spoke at least a couple of times a month, LaCreis Kidd said, so when her daughter went missing, she feared the worst.
“When I was finally re-united with Nayla, it was a bit awkward,” Kidd wrote. “How could she just cut me off like that? … I’m not angry, but I’m still recovering from such a traumatic experience.”
When Kidd was found, a police official told the New York Daily News, “Basically, she just wanted to get away from it all.”
Multiple news outlets reported that Kidd was attending Columbia on a full scholarship. All scholarships for undergraduates at Columbia are rewarded based on financial need. In a recent story, The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson chronicled the burdens facing lower-income students in the Ivy League. Despite having their tuition paid for, many are nonetheless stymied by high costs of living and feel socially alienated from their wealthy peers.
Anderson interviewed students who said they often went hungry to save on food. “The reality of a full ride isn’t always what they had dreamed it would be,” he wrote.