August 31, 2011

Throwing Freshmen Into the Deep End

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As Cornellians, we all study at an institution that was founded in order to cater to our different intellectual quirks. As Hotellies, Aggies and Liberal Artsy-types, we all benefit from Cornell’s diverse course offerings. No two students walk the same path through Cornell, but we all start with the same two basic requirements: two semesters of physical education and a swim test.

Physical education (i.e. required exercise) is undoubtedly beneficial both physically and emotionally for any college student, and because the course offerings are so vast, every student can find something that he or she is both interested in and able to do. The mandatory swim test, however, seems outdated, anxiety-provoking and generally unnecessary. Contrary to popular belief, the swim test requirement was developed in 1918 when the Director of Women’s Physical Education decided that female Cornellians should graduate with the ability to swim. Today, both men and women are required to pass the test before receiving their diplomas. Cornellians are not unique. Other colleges like MIT, Dartmouth and Columbia University also have swimming requirements.

While most students take the test during their first weeks of school, one of my good friends conveniently waited until her junior year to dive in. I went to Helen Newman to cheer her on (and maybe to laugh at her for wearing goggles), but was overcome by second-hand anxiety when I walked past the women’s locker room. Almost everyone in the long line (most of whom appeared to be freshmen) was visibly nervous and uneasy, struggling with awkward introductions. While I waited for my friend to finish her test (she passed!), I watched forced conversations and self-conscious fidgeting and saw six new students fail their swim tests.

These six students arrived at Cornell a mere two weeks ago leaving their friends, families and homes, forced to make new peers, and live on their own in a new environment. At Helen Newman that afternoon they were required to strip down to almost nothing in order to be told that they failed — in front of strangers, nonetheless. One of the first messages Cornell University sent to these six students was, “You are a failure.” They had to return to their dorms, enroll in introduction to swimming and spend the next two semesters working to overcome their deficits. Surely all of us had some eye-opening and humbling experiences our first semester at Cornell: the first prelim, the anonymity of big lectures and the shear size of the physical campus all can be —  and are — startling for any student, but there is something so terribly heartbreaking about being half-naked and alone when someone from the University literally tells you that you are inadequate.

The swim test came about with good intentions and is, in fact, in line with Ezra Cornell’s vision of a well-rounded education, but I do not believe that any student should be expected to complete this requirement during their first days on campus. Although Asher Roth and movies like Animal House portray college as a paradise where the beer is always plentiful and the friendships are made for you, the fact is the transition from high school to college is extremely frightening, and for many, takes some time. And while Cornell goes to great lengths elsewhere to ease this transition with innovations like freshman writing seminars, peer advisors and orientation programs, the University seems to be oddly blind to the potential trauma of the good ’ole swim test.

First, consider the required attire. The idea that new students have to line up in bathing suits (I have yet to meet an 18-year-old woman who feels at her best in a bikini) and jump into a pool in front of strangers seems like the opposite of nurturing. Next, what about the cultural bias inherent in this test? Not everyone who comes to Cornell grew up going to summer camp or swimming in his or her high school’s Olympic-sized swimming pool. Knowing how to swim presumably just isn’t a priority across the board. Is swimming still a skill that seems absolutely necessary in this day and age? Does swimming three lengths of a pool mean a student is able to swim to save his or her own life? I doggy paddled mine and probably couldn’t last long in a gorge or ocean … but I passed. Why is swimming required, but classes like personal finance or nutrition aren’t? When all of us leave Cornell we will be launched into a world of bleak markets and chronic illness, and yet three laps (one on your back, please) is more valuable than training in economics?

If the Cornell faculty still believes that swimming three laps in a pool is an absolutely critical skill to have in 2011, the swim test should be revamped. As I stood by and watched my friend take her swim test the other day, I was struck by the fact that the terrified freshmen I saw there would likely, in time, feel as comfortable jumping into the pool as my friend did, but their uneasiness — their newness­ — made even good swimmers anxious about this test. The swim test has remained on Cornellians’ transcripts as a tradition, and it should be treated as one. The test should be taken with friends, once well adjusted to campus life, as a playful and humane rite of passage. Those who come to school not knowing how to swim will prepare for their tests beforehand, but no one need be tested or demoralized in his or her first days at college.

Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at hdeixler@cornellsun.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler