April 8, 2019

PIETSCH | Community Despite Competition

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In January 2016, I bought a pair of black Adrienne Vittadini heels so I could make a good impression. I was a sophomore at Cornell and had transferred in the previous semester. I had friends, but I wanted a home. I was going to rush a sorority.

A week later, I joined a long line of girls waiting to enter sorority houses for rush. I glanced at my phone to avoid making small talk and caught a photo from the Boston Women’s March. I regretted not staying behind. Instead of marching for equality, I was standing still for conformity.

House music — the pre-entrance playlist — greeted us and ushered my anxiety. There was a small piece of paper with my name on it in my pocket. I felt for it — it was still there. I noticed a girl resting on the railing and wondered if she’d be scolded for her informality, for not standing in line like the rest of us. It was the 1950s and sitting on a railing was un-ladylike.

It could have been worse. My older sister told me to bring hand warmers and wear Uggs — a pair of our matching Costco knockoffs, actually — for standing in line and running between houses before squishing my toes back into my new stilettos. Earlier that week, the temperature was in the 70s, but it still sucked. That morning, it was in the 20s. It could have been worse.

As I stood in line, I mentally prepared for the events to come: In five minutes, the door would open and the girls in the house would scream-sing their song. I would place my slip of paper in the basket and smile and surrender my jacket, borrowed from my mom, to the greeter. A rumor told me she would check its label to determine my economic status. I pulled the cuff of my coat sleeve down over my wrist, to remind myself it was Tommy Hilfiger, probably from Macy’s: good enough — more than enough.

After handing off my coat, I would make small talk for a pre-planned period of time. In the words of Daily Pennsylvanian columnist Isabella Simonetti, it would be “a job interview where I have no idea how I’m being assessed.” This banter would determine if our personalities were compatible for a forever friendship, and I would trust that the girls were all the same. I would make a judgment, based on a stereotype, about the girl I spoke with: too cool, not cool enough. I would not be marching with my mother in Boston.

I looked at the backs of the other girls’ coats. They reminded me of the university style standard: at 20 years old, my love for color now felt like a middle schooler’s awkward phase. Puffy, down, thigh-length coats toe-tapped and phone-checked in place. Matte black finishes and boxy cuts were incomplete without an Arctic red patch on every upper left arm. The coyote fur atop every head reminded me I was significantly less warm than they were. I was still warm enough. I worried about my label.

I thought about how we stood in line, instead of marching; about their matching down coats, and my thin, colorful one. I thought about my friends who wore the same coat. I thought about joining them. I thought more than I should have.

My phone buzzed. It was a selfie from my mom holding a poster at the rally. I attempted digital positivity, but I was frustrated by the backs of coats that stood in front of me. Judging people’s appearances, feeling pressured to conform and requiring inclusion for self-worth: It was everything my mom had taught me not to worry about. The door swung open, and the scream-singing began. The line filled with smiles. I questioned why they matched — why, without thinking, I now matched, too. I handed over my jacket.

Now, two years later, I look back at my spot in line. While I’m no longer in a sorority, I stand in full support of the women scream-singing behind the door. I’m grateful for their sameness, and for their negligence in inspecting my coat. I recognize the ways sororities empower one another as organizations, and the ways their friendship empowered me, although I’m not blind to so many girls whose spirits were damaged by their process.

Sororities aren’t alone in their exclusion. They participate in a college experience that columnist Dustin Liu ’19 calls “fundamentally an audition.” This experience isn’t entirely out of place, — the college admission process was cut-throat in its own right — and so the process of vying for limited spots continues within the gorge-studded moat that surrounds Cornell. From business fraternities to a cappella groups, we’re finding homes through exclusivity — or, equally as often, we’re not.

Through every competitive process at Cornell, we find ourselves in search of acceptance. A formal recognition of musical talent, professional potential or social status makes a world of difference for an individual on a large campus. Pockets form like quicksand in the social landscape, drawing in smaller collectives of like-minded people. The gorges we walk over aren’t the only trenches to which we’re exposed. Beyond the admissions process, our challenge as Cornell students now is to find acceptance through community over exclusivity, individuality over isolation.

Next year, I’ll march with my mother. Today, I don’t think about my jacket’s label.

Victoria Pietsch is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at [email protected]. Fancy Pants runs every other Monday this semester.