October 1, 2013

GUEST ROOM: You Will Fail at Cornell

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To most Cornellians, the daily views of the gorges are a reminder of the beauty of the Hill. Yet before this May, these views were obstructed by cold, metal fences — a stark reminder of something much more sinister.

The fences at Cornell were representative of the difficulties that come with going to a school where in everything that we do, we tend to evaluate our individual performance and compare that to others’. This environment can be elating — we have the power to determine our future, and push ourselves to be better. But it also tends to make us feel like if we didn’t do it ourselves, we cheated.

Yet, we will all fail at Cornell, at least in the general sense. All of us will do poorly on a prelim, struggle with our relationships and fail to achieve all of the goals we set. Understandably, many seem to equate an inability to achieve their goals with failure.

However, out of all of our “failures,” there is one way in which we have all genuinely failed; we have hesitated to reach out to others in times of emotional distress. Frankly, it can be very difficult to admit that we feel stressed when we are constantly surrounded by peers who seem so successful, and so put together. There is unfortunately a stigma surrounding the discussion of mental health, one that sometimes discourages us from being honest with our friends about how we are really doing.

If there is anything we should learn at Cornell, it is that seeking assistance is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of maturity. According to the American Psychological Association, 73 percent of individuals regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress. The message of this is simple: you are not alone. Most of us will, at some point, feel overburdened by the variety of stresses in our life. And the entire Cornell Community will benefit if we acknowledge that regardless of our Ivy League pedigree, we are not infallible; we face disappointment much like everyone else.

In the Cornell bubble, we tend to equate personal success with indicators that have no real merit outside Cornell. What fraternity you are drinking at on Friday night, or the number of student organizations you’re involved in pale in comparison to the friendships and personal growth that will impact you for the rest of your life. When you ask others for help, it is not an admittance of a personal failure, but an investment in the most important thing you can gain on the Hill: personal relationships with the people around us.

As a corollary, each of us should seek to support our friends and classmates whenever they are faced with setbacks. Sometimes, we may feel uncomfortable asking for the very help we need and want our friends to initiate a conversation. Perhaps, the next time each of us asks “How are you doing?” let’s genuinely ask the question. And if you think that someone you’re talking to needs help, provide it. The small investment we make in our friends and acquaintances may pay huge dividends for their well-being.

The Cornell family is strong not for the buildings we build or the competitions we beat Stanford in, but for the collective support we provide one another. None of us will go through our time on the Hill without experiencing some disappointment. But if together, we learn to cope with momentary setbacks, and truly seek to support one another, it will provide a source of strength for all.

In the spring of 2010, President Skorton emailed all Cornellians with a simple message: “If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help. It is a sign of wisdom and strength.” It is about time for us to follow this advice, and truly support one another. We may be a diverse university, but we all face many of the same circumstances. As soon as we recognize this, we will become a more unified and supportive community.

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