April 7, 2011

For the Sake of Learning

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I had the incredible fortune of taking a two-week Spring Break (Dear Administration, you should instate that. Two weeks are far better than one. I’d rather get out of classes a week later). After feeling incredibly refreshed, I came back to this horrible weather. But that’s beside the point.

I went to Quito, Ecuador, for two weeks, to present the play I talked about last time, Mujeres de Ciudad Juarez. We performed it in the Fifth Annual International Encounter for Theatre Teachers and Students in Ecuador’s Central University (wow, that’s a mouthful). It was a.ma.zing. Play after play, workshop after workshop, the experience was mesmerizing. One of the most fulfilling, diverse, soul-defining events Cornell has provided me so far.

I could mostly talk about the trip. I could write novels about it (and I could say I kind of intend to. Once I graduate, goddammit). But I wanted to talk about the things around the trip itself, rather, especially since there’s no reason why you would care about how cool it is that you lose your balance over the Equator line (yes, you do. Look it up).

First off: huge shout-out to Teatrotaller, the troupe responsible for the play. Have you ever heard about it? It’s a Spanish theatre troupe that puts on between one to two plays per semester and works on a community one during the summer, usually. You can take it for credit, and you can do lights or staging or makeup or sound or publicity or anything involved in the theatre production apart from acting, if that’s not your thing. It’s run by students (advised by the stellar Debbie Castillo, who has led the group for 18 years) and has put on some awesome shows. The troupe has made it to international festivals quite often, and the experiences have been referred to as nothing short of what I just came back from: mind-opening parentheses that create the possibility of thinking way beyond the walls and boxes we can easily snuggle in.

Why is Teatrotaller important? … Well, given the quite dismal portrayal of everything in the University lately, of everyone taking a stand and talking about how terrible life is, the economy, the budget cuts, the lack of sponsorship for the sciences, for the arts, the bad government, the bad prospects for people after graduation, the lack of community in the University, the horrible weather … this troupe is actually one of the optimistic stories to look at. Teatrotaller thrives. But it thrives because it works for it. Because people get together and find interesting ways to spend as little as possible and use the fewest resources possible to make a high quality production, because everyone asks for extra funding from everywhere they can to make it work, and the ticket sales go straight back to the funds that will be used for the next play … it’s enthralling to see the group at work. To see how a few people can make something so big. I see Teatrotaller as an example of how resourceful thinking can overcome anything. Learning under them has truly been an honor.

It was an honor to also share the experience of Ecuador with the Teatrotaller troupe. We just came back from a festival at a university that asks $35 from its students to study at it. Where the median income is less than $400 per month, the theatre department there fundraises for two years to bring 10 international delegations to present their work and pays for their hotel stays and meals while we’re there. Their hospitality was dumbfounding. And people bonded; I am sure I was not the only one that came out with her world changed. And this was done by a small handful of people with nearly no resources who got those resources slowly and took great care of what they had.

Seeing all these people together in one place for the sake of theatre and the creation that evolved there reminded me that art will exist as long as there are artists. A lot of the most incredible work I’ve seen — here, in Ecuador or elsewhere — is created “out of thin air:” with minimal materials that portray geniality. Novels and essays that blow your mind, plays with no props that show just how much more creativity is left in the world. What is evident there is the hard work of the artist, the playwright, the author, the actor. Time and hard work are invaluable.

And it makes me think: We at Cornell are undoubtedly privileged. No amount of complaining can bring that fact down. Problems? Sure. And we shouldn’t be blind to them! Perspective? Needed. A fellow columnist argues that Cornell is a vocational school just like any other in pragmatic terms. I’m not sure how I take that. If it is, it is because we let it be. For those who want to learn for learning’s sake, think outside the box, yadayada … Cornell IS here for you, with its double perspectives everywhere (look outside department #1. There’s always deparment #2 that says the contrary. It’s delicious), its insanely diverse community, its myriad of events. Learning for learning’s sake is here for anyone who cares enough to go and look for it. That will still mean more for you and your life than the GPA you’re trying to keep. Grades are not everything (spoiler alert: they DO mean something. Just not everything). The sooner we learn that, the faster we can get to the learning part.

Students really need to use what is here for us. A session of office hours with a professor lands you research questions that can be made into thesis projects. Lunches from Career Services can land you jobs (early sign ups are encouraged!). International Students and Scholars Office and Financial Aid advising can save you days of frustration and fear. Mental health initiatives to reduce stress really reduce stress, if you take the time to go to them. You can actually reach out for help when help is needed. And I’m not making these up. I’ve lived them first hand. These resources, the ones that make Cornell more livable, are the most valuable things Cornell has. Because without them, all the academic excellence the University thrives on would not get out; the people would be too broken to do that. (And kudos for all you staff members, for making my life at Cornell livable. Thank you!)

Ecuador and this festival reminded me of how beautiful it is to learn just because. And gave me the possibility of winding down and realizing, “Hey, it’s OK. Life is not a curved grade test.” So take what you want out of it. What YOU want. It’s your life, after all. Not that having a stable economic life is a bad thing, but we have to believe a little more in the possibility of risk, of stepping out of the norm, of being ok if things are not going exactly within the step-by-step processes we are supposed to follow. Why learn about how diverse the world is and then go back into our boxes? What’s the point?

Florencia Ulloa is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at fulloa@cornellsun.com. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Florencia Ulloa