At 1:44 p.m. last Wednesday, I made an executive decision. For the next three hours, I sat with other students, feeding off the energy of the room and, occasionally, the free popcorn I realized I hadn’t been taking more advantage of. I sent an email to my professor on why I couldn’t make it to class and regretted not feeling sorry.
The decision wasn’t difficult, but I owe it to my sophomore year English professor. No matter what we discussed in her class, we were grounded by our feelings; we were students studying texts, but we were not purely analytical beings who were detached from emotional connections. Our past experiences affected every reading we did and made us react in different ways. She brought local and national issues into our discussions and made us feel like the knowledge we gained wasn’t circumstantial and wouldn’t be easily forgotten after a paper was submitted. Classes here can make us feel mechanical when we mindlessly take notes and attend lectures: in this class, we learned to care.
When I found out there would be a sit-in at Willard Straight Hall held by Black Students United, I knew that it was something I wanted to participate in. A few of my friends and I headed over, but what disappointed me the most was seeing the fear in their eyes as soon as they entered the room. They found themselves in a crowded space, felt the heat from the collection of bodies, heard the shouts of passionate students and instantly froze. They stammered out a few excuses like, “I have readings to do,” and “I think I need to finish my notes.” What did they think the other students in WSH were doing? We’re human beings first, but students second. People were studying and doing work as they participated in the sit-in. But the energy that filled the room was so tangible because of the sheer number of people who showed up.
I realized that many of us get lulled into what we assume to be the safety net of academia. For some reason, readings and prelims are valid excuses for not being an engaged citizen. There are, of course, people who choose not to attend these events because they simply don’t care, and any attempt to sway their opinion or convince them otherwise would be pointless. But there are people who put on the illusion of political and cultural awareness and are always sharing their opinions about important issues. They’re the type of person you would expect to see at a sit-in. When it comes time to actually show up, however, they’re absent.
Especially in this political climate, I’ve questioned how much I can really do without my actions remaining meaningless and insignificant. And I realized the first thing I can do is show up. Showing up is an action that begins with intention and ends with passion. Only passion to dedicate yourself to a cause will allow you to prioritize what matters the most in your life and follow through with it. Even now, I’m struggling with being a student at a competitive school while also standing up (or sitting in) for issues I care about. At universities like this, people find it unnecessary to skip a lecture to participate in an event that won’t affect their GPA or be added to their resume. When I asked my friend last year to attend a women’s march at Ithaca City Hall that took place during both of our classes, she told me she didn’t want others to get ahead in class; she needed to show up. But if you can so easily skip a class because of a hangover or as a simple act of laziness, why can’t you make that decision when it comes to coming together to fight for women’s rights or protesting a racist assault of a fellow student?
I’m not the perfect example of this. I’m a student like everyone else. People have been talking about interviews already, thinking ahead and planning for their futures. We have clubs and extracurriculars and social events on top of everything else. You can’t add, “I am a human being who cares about other human beings regardless of any socially constructed or systemically born category” to a resume. But you’re also not going to be a student forever, and part of being a real person in the real world is having compassion for others and a genuine drive and dedication for whatever it is that you believe in.
Gabrielle Leung is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.