May 1, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Culture in the Crosshairs

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I know this probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is reading this, but Cornell can be an incredibly stressful place. Before coming to Cornell, I had heard, like most of you, how intense Cornell could be, but I had never taken the time to really imagine what such an environment might look like. Since getting to Cornell I’ve watched myself and many of my friends become far more stressed than ever before. I’ve heard several people point out that in reality Cornell probably isn’t any more difficult than most other top universities, and much to the chagrin of some of you reading this, I’d have to agree. Yes, Cornell is difficult — we can all agree on that — but the fact of the matter is that a large part of the stress that Cornellians put up with is a result of the culture that we as students have created for ourselves.

The high level of performance that Cornellians feel compelled to achieve encompasses more than just academics. Students must simultaneously demonstrate powerful, almost infallible commitment to their extracurriculars, career planning and social life. The perceived intensity and rigor of our beloved institution has over time permeated every aspect of student life, creating additional expectations that are hard to balance along with one’s own mental health.

It is unreasonable — nearly impossible — to meet such unrealistic expectations continuously for four or five years. Let us not forget that many students face these same expectations while also contending with discrimination, financial instability and myriad other systematic obstacles. Yet so many of us still try to do just that. At what cost do we pursue these lofty goals?

It’s important to be passionate about the things in which you are involved, but when this passion meets Cornell’s intense pressure to succeed, students become cutthroat and only augment the stress of their environment.In this regard, Cornell can be overwhelming. Not only are we extremely focused on performing  everything to the best of our ability, but when we need to decompress or rant about life, some of us feel obligated to hold back, too used to having our peers labeled as our competitors. Used to feeling like if we show any sign of weakness we will lose respect in our extracurriculars. Used to feeling like if we say how we really feel we’ll be shunned from our social circles. Used to feeling like if we let up for just a second to think about how fucked our situation is, we’ll miss out on career opportunities.

What if we as students stopped treating each other like competitors or obstacles to our own success? What if instead we started treating each other like collaborators, confidants, friends and human beings…like Cornellians? The sentiments I’ve outlined above may seem very one-dimensional, which I think is fair — to discuss the full scope of Cornell’s culture would require a lot more investigation and discussion. It is worth noting, however, that not all undergraduates feel the need to be the best or meet these ridiculous expectations. At the same time there are a number of other students who feel this pressure and simply manifest their response to it differently. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that our cutthroat culture is not reflective of Cornell’s alumni community, at least not in my personal, albeit limited experience.

This past spring break two of my friends and I had the honor of attending Cornell’s Asia Pacific Leadership Conference in Hong Kong on behalf of the Cornell International Affairs Society. The APLC is an annual alumni conference that brings together interested undergrad, graduate and post-graduate alumni of Cornell who either work in Asia or have a direct connection to the region through their work. While interviewing attendees to help create promotional materials for next year, I noticed a stark contrast between the overall vibe of our Ithaca campus and this conference. Suddenly the Cornell façade of infallibility and the need for people to always be the best completely eroded. Where one can expect braggadocious interactions between competitive students in Ithaca, I saw humble introductions and honest conversations between former Cornellians at the APLC. Don’t let me give you the wrong idea. While interacting with alumni it was still abundantly clear that I was surrounded by a number of extremely motivated people, however these people didn’t seem driven out of any sense of obligation but rather because that was what they had decided was best for them.

Throughout the weekend, my interactions with alumni continued to defy the norms I had assumed were prevalent throughout Cornell culture.  A large part of the networking was still centered around self-promotion, however this was a result of the attendees desire to find opportunities to help their fellow Cornellians in whatever manner possible. The respect and compassion that I observed between alumni was not only inspiring, but it made me think differently about the overwhelming environment that many undergraduates know all too well.

Yes, Cornell is stressful. Yes, a lot of this stress is artificially created by the students themselves. But no, you will not be forced to resent this stress or our university for the rest of your life. The Cornell experience is like tough love, and while it shouldn’t be as intense as it is — this is by no means a defense of sacrificing mental health to meet social expectations — it does pay off in the end. Over time, if we all continue to collaborate, look past meeting expectations and remain honest with each other and ourselves, we too will get to enjoy the milk and honey on the other side. Let me put this in a way that may be easier to understand. Being an alumni of Cornell is like being a brother in a frat. Unfortunately for us, we’re all still in our pledge semester.


TJ Ball is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room appears periodically throughout the semester. Comments and responses can be sent to [email protected]