November 13, 2017

BENITEZ | Our Alienating Alma Mater

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Early this semester, I stumbled past Noyes with a friend late one weekend to discover a jubilant group of guys sitting on a ledge. Their random shouts echoed over the slope, and, as cliched an expression it is, their relaxed demeanors and comfortable adventurousness truly did betray not a care in the world. I remember my friend and I struck up a conversation, over which we learned that these guys were just-arrived sophomore transfers. Right before departing, I turned back to one of them and said, considering what we had just discussed: “I remember what it felt like to be new here. Best of luck, man.”

Since last January, when I filed an application to transfer out of Cornell, I’ve spent much time ruminating on what makes Cornell unique, for the better or worse. Sometimes I wonder whether the collective sullenness that defines our campus simply stems from the anxiety of young adulthood, but disheartening comparisons to other schools often make me wonder whether I should have accepted the chance to transfer. Whether it’s one lecturer’s facetious but purposeful remark that Cornell students “are so much less happy” than our Stanford counterparts, or a recent Make Cornell Meme Again post about overhearing a visiting parent on a campus tour mention how “they look like zombies,” the variety of anecdotal evidence suggests alienation is quietly more ubiquitous than we are otherwise led to believe.

But its source likely isn’t the reputed rigor of our curriculum, as that doesn’t account for how other schools with similarly dense curricula don’t seem hamstrung by a similar problem. Instead we should account for the extent to which our immediate physical environment affects our social interactions, and hence our existence in a lot of respects. Unlike universities with robust residential college systems like Yale, or a small, contained campuses like Brown, ours is one where the social experience from sophomore is outsourced to an amalgam of tradition (Greek life), fierce landlords (off-campus living) or the Hunger Games (the housing lottery).

The other day, I found myself roped into hanging out with a group of freshmen, for perhaps the first time in at least a year, in their Dickson quad. I was amazed by the variety of individuals within this tight friend group: one was dirty-rushing a prominent house and seemed like a generally fratty guy, whereas the other had long-enough hair to explain his interest in co-ops. Separately, consider how even corporate environments make active attempts to institutionally enculturate interaction: think of the interaction-conducive architecture of Pixar, as encouraged by Steve Jobs, and all of the academic literature connecting one’s environment and one’s mental framework, and contrast it to how clearly demarcated Cornell’s well-defined social institutions are from each other.

Anyone who stands at the intersection of these predominant institutions can attest to the sense that it can really seem like an intersection. Indeed, this is because of how demarcated the boundaries between them are, and the extent to which physical separation of our school ensures that an undergraduate hotelie living in a house on North Campus may likely never again see an international computer science student living in southernmost Collegetown. And the fact that spaces allowing for this interaction don’t extend any further than freshman North is regrettable.

This pervasive institutionalization defines more than housing. That Cornell has so many student clubs is a wonderful, quotable fact, but also telling of the striking extent to which formal organizations are held responsible for social interaction. And so, considering the clusteredness of Cornell’s institutions, and perhaps the unchangeable geographic scope of our university, we should not be so surprised by the social boundaries that result.

Remembering those freshmen and the eclectic variety of their friend group, it seemed worth bemoaning how their interactions will likely diminish come next fall. The same could likely be said of those sophomore transfers. Before coming to college, I imagine that many of us wrote something about wanting to be exposed to a diversity of different people while at college. Despite my cynicism toward the application process as a whole, a lot of people probably wrote this in earnest, which makes the self-segregation encouraged at Cornell all the more regrettable, considering what we were maybe looking for in the first place.

 

Lorenzo Benitez is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at lbenitez@cornellsun.com. Not a Cop appears alternate Mondays this semester.