April 22, 2019

PIETSCH | The Reality of Student Leadership

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I once sat in on a college info session, where a stereotype named Jessica gushed about her love for the musicals she’d produced at her university. I don’t remember her major; I don’t remember the others who’d spoken on the panel; I don’t even remember the university where this took place. But I remember Jessica’s presumed willingness to die for her college, and the musically inclined students she led. I remember the life in her eyes when she described the fulfillment student leadership awarded her. It was a true college love story, which inspired and nauseated me simultaneously.

Four or five years down the line, I now resemble Jessica. A few executive board positions, presidencies and speeches at events have dotted the important moments of my college career. Student leadership has been good to me, I tell visiting students, a message that reassures them but feels expected. At meetings over coffee, I grind my teeth to avoid oversharing — but the truth spills out, regardless: Student leadership is not always rewarding.

Most students taking on leadership roles are not doing this in only one area. The president of one club is on the executive board of another, and the self-induced pressure can be difficult to handle. As a student leader, my best day can entail the follow-through on an idea for a new event; an average day can mean I kept my club alive on campus; a bad day can mean I lost funding — and you can guess which one gets noticed the most. It can be difficult to keep one’s spirits up while holding down so much responsibility. As college students navigate the process of becoming self-sufficient adults, their willingness to challenge themselves is often met with immense pressure to maintain decades-long Cornell traditions.

At the same time, students may not always be looking for a challenge. Shockingly, their commitments may be born of genuine passion. On a college campus, however, students often feel compelled to turn that interest into dedication, and a hobby begins to feel more like a chore. In my senior spring at Cornell, I chose to make time for myself by upping my extracurricular interests while stabilizing my final academic requirements. Yet the deadlines imposed by clubs can often feel more taxing than those set by coursework, and I choose to prioritize the pressures of a gala, concert or exhibit opening over the stress of an impending group project. It’s not the smartest move for a senior approaching her graduation, but it follows where my passions lie. I resolve to get it all done — and done well — somehow.

It’s hardly my place to complain, however. I signed up for this. And while a bit of soul-searching could probably help me handle my tendency to overcommit, a student leader like myself maintains unreasonable goals for the sake of personal growth. My boss from my first job — working in the kitchen of a pediatric facility in my hometown — stays in touch. “You know what I really like about you,” she says over text, “[is that] you take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way.” Her encouragement emulates an aspect of myself I find critical to my identity. I carry it close with me, through every challenge that may be just beyond reach.

Thus, despite some stress, my passions haven’t died out, although I do feel as though something lacks from my experiences. Cornell could do more to support its student leadership, although I recognize some organizations may inevitably benefit from stronger encouragement than those in which I’m involved. Nevertheless, a leadership position can feel like a full-time job where I lack the qualifications and received barely any training; I slack and take breaks in the form of homework and classes. Without committed administration, an institution fails, but a university fails altogether when it neglects to support the students that work tirelessly to keep it afloat. If my extracurricular engagements collapsed altogether, I wonder if their downfall would make any dent at all in Cornell’s foundation.

The pitfalls and sense of doubt, however, are far less significant than the benefits of my commitments. I don’t emulate Jessica because I’m dishonest. Through years of hard work, I’ve learned how to keep up with my email inbox, speak slightly less awkwardly before a crowd, maintain keen organization, meet deadlines at all costs and, on occasion, have a backbone where it counts. Moreover, I’ve connected, I’ve understood, I’ve been patient, I’ve been creative, I’ve persevered, I’ve found confidence and I’ve used compassion — for others and for myself.

The most succinct definition of student leadership I’ve found was when a friend explained that his commitment to our club allowed him to find confidence in being himself. I hadn’t recognized how it resonated with me until someone else said it. It’s not until you’re leading others — while being weird or nerdy or neurotic — that you come to accept you can lead yourself.

During a high school graduation ceremony in 2015, I gave a speech I called “The Importance of Being Optimistic,” and it centered on how this quality allowed me to connect and grow and stay focused on my future. In college, this mentality has had the potential to get me into trouble, as I set unreasonable goals, but unreasonable has never meant unattainable. I’ll never regret choosing another meeting or rehearsal or hour of work over another episode of Netflix. But everything needs balance.

Victoria Pietsch is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at vpietsch@cornellsun.com. Fancy Pants runs every other Monday this semester.