“Well this is some old-school, Ivy Leaguer, boys and girls, three-feet-on-the-floor stuff,” I thought to myself. We were going to Wells College for a semi-formal. My friend’s girlfriend goes there, and his girlfriend has a friend, and through the potentially awkward workings of social arrangement, it was established that I would be her friend’s date for the evening; so it goes, so it goes.
For those of you who don’t know, Wells College is a small, liberal arts institution situated on a dreamy, picturesque campus in Aurora, New York, about 25 miles north of Ithaca. Founded in 1868 as a women’s college by Henry Wells, the institution — in true, 19th century Utopian fashion — was intended to produce the “ideal” contemporary woman. Ezra Cornell supposedly wished to merge the two schools, but for Wells’ reluctance and other reasons, Cornell became coeducational on its own. Wells is still considered to be the historical “sister college” of Cornell, but due to both the university’s persistent trend of coeducation and the distance between the two schools, “Wells” might not conjure the same images of such antiquated gender separatism as say a “Barnard” or “Radcliffe.” Furthermore, Wells itself is no longer a woman’s college, as it become coeducational in 2005.
Nevertheless, Cornell and Wells do indeed share a storied history together, one steeped in a tradition that brings to mind some of the previously stated mid-twentieth century connotations. So many of these anecdotes and customs directly involve the complimentary Cornell Man and Wells Woman, glorifying these two prolific figures in their romantic and often ludicrous pursuits of each other. I’ve been told tales that involve buses full of Wells women being driven to formals at Cornell, at which they would endure some arbitrary, humorous “selection process” that would determine their respective Cornellian date. There are accounts of objects and statues being stolen from one institution (some of which may or may not have ever been returned), necessitating a subsequent visit by one of these esteemed cohorts. In the September 22, 1950 edition of The Sun, there sits a black and white picture of four women, titled “WELL WELL WELL WELL….” A caption under the picture describes these Wells College students as “dating rivals of Cornell coeds.” Recently, my friend recited to me some version of a proverbial saying, “for every Wells Woman, there’s a Cornell Man.”
At some point, perhaps in the later twentieth century, this symbiotic relationship between the two schools began to wane in its wily intensity. Indeed, I fear that the relationship between Cornell and Wells has become dangerously close to extinct, maintaining only loose academic ties. Needless to say, much has changed since 1950, particularly including the ways in which men and women go about seeing and interacting with each other, and the rigidity of such gender norms and identities — all of this is undoubtedly for the better and has contributed to a more welcoming and inclusive society. However, it would be blindly naïve and ignorant to blame “societal progress” for hindering the traditions between Wells and Cornell. More aptly, the nature of being a young person in general has changed; with the proliferation of technology and social media, a certain degree of humanity has been lost in this electronic detachment of the present. Or maybe, due to the ever increasing monetization of one’s college education, these four years become less a time to forge coming-of-age experiences and social interactions, but instead an opportunity to overachieve academically and receive a job offer.
These fun practices of social connectivity and courtship flourished at a time when schools like Cornell and Wells found their own unique identities, distinguishing both Cornell Man and Wells Woman from their Ivy and collegiate peers. Traditions such as these are meant to inspire some feelings of nostalgia as they preserve various pieces of past thoughts and actions, and ironically (being an old soul), I am nostalgic for want of this nostalgia. Do these practices have a place at colleges and universities of the 21st century? I think they do, and I sense a parallel situation occurring in collegiate Greek systems, like that at Cornell. Prior to this semester, I didn’t give much thought to the histories or traditions of Greek houses, but after rushing a fraternity a few months ago, I was enlightened. At their most basic elements, many (probably not all) Greek houses are comprised by groups of sentimentalists just trying to keep some traditions alive and in line with 21st century mores and ideals and against ever-advancing standardization.
And that’s exactly who we were on the night of that semi-formal at Wells College. In one sense, sentimentalists, boats against some greater current taking part in the last few breaths of a fading tradition. Yet, in a different way we were optimists, ideal and humble representations of the 21st century Cornell Man and Wells Woman. I feel that it was an honor to participate in the spirited rituals of so many former students, almost like we were personally extended invitations from the ghosts of collegiate past. I discovered (am discovering) that the aforementioned proverbial phrase just might be true. And lastly, I learned that there is indeed a subtle beauty and great deal of inspiration to be found in traditions.
Nick Swan is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.