August 28, 2019

DERY | Take Your Headphones Off

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p class=”p1″>A man seated at a nearby table during a Monday night chess tournament in my hometown spots my Big Red t-shirt and approaches me. With a finger aimed at my chest, he tells me through a crooked grin that he’s a Cornell alumnus. I tell him I’m thinking about a physics major, which is received by what appears to be a nod of approval as he quickly chimes that he was an engineer here. He proceeds to angle his shoulders parallel to mine, slip his phone out of his pocket, and swipes through his decades-old pictures as a Cornell student. I had barely told him my name, yet we were already peering into what appeared to be some of the best days of his life: him between two others holding drinks. Swipe. In a commencement robe. Swipe. Laughing alongside other friends. Swipe. He reminisces his first days of freshman orientation, how he met lifelong friends simply by taking nightly trips into the woods.

His excitement begins to rub off on me, though I can’t help but think about how my college experience — even before arriving on campus — will already be so different than his. At the start of his freshman year, he set foot on a campus filled with unfamiliar faces before him. But no longer are incoming freshmen virgins of college social life as they arrive on campus. In a pre-freshman frenzy, social media has catalyzed the precious transition-to-college phase, and, in the process, has skipped a few key steps.

From direct messages to group chats to class-wide accounts, apps like Instagram and Snapchat are networking gold mines to us incoming freshman. As soon as we matriculate, we have the ability to virtually connect with hundreds of fellow soon-to-be-Cornellians and mold what we want to be seen as before we even really know who we are. And though this immense luxury can begin to acclimate incoming freshmen to college social life, it simultaneously deprives users of another important luxury: a clean slate. At face value, this summertime networking soothes the shrinking of the inflated high school senior ego back into its freshman form. But, soon after the excitement over virtually meeting fellow classmates and exchanging names — or rather, usernames — sets in, so does the inevitable fear of missing out on forging new friend circles. Consequently, the natural desire to already have friends when arriving on campus fuels the notion that we can and should “find our people” virtually. A fellow freshman’s parent noted that social media fosters a speed dating of sorts among peers in a scramble for potential friends.

Moreover, this reliance on social media to carry-out a virtual pre-freshman orientation of our own acts to further the social inequality gap between those active on social media and those who aren’t: modern iterations of extroverts and introverts, respectively. This past spring, I joined these platforms with the hopes of being perceived as the former. I’m not. I just didn’t want to be left behind. For myself and many others, the prospect of a clean slate is therein lost.

Even Cornellian platforms such as CU on the Hill that have good intentions of connecting incoming freshman with each other can nonetheless contribute to the same overarching problem. Though connecting freshmen who share classes and interests can familiarize students to the classroom and thus reduce angst, I found in my first week at Cornell that this shortcut can deprive students of much of the growth that should ideally be spurred by freshman orientation. When we are paired based on class, we risk closing ourselves off solely to peers with relatively similar academic interests. How are we supposed to “find our people” before knowing which ones aren’t? As such, the period of self-exploration that is integral to orientation is at risk.

I think back to my encounter with the Cornell alumnus. I imagine his first day. I picture him moving into a dorm where no one knows each other. And on his behalf, I cherish the uncertainty. I revel at the prospect of encountering unfamiliar faces and sharing experiences with them, preserving the luxury of taking my time before finding close friends.

Fortunately, despite social media, much uncertainty still remains for our incoming class. Obviously, our mingling will extend far beyond networking on social media. In fact, in small doses, social media can be effective in easing into the somewhat intimidating prospect of starting from scratch. Therefore, I simply urge my fellow freshman to embrace the notion of a clean slate, to ease the online scramble to “find our herd.” Focus on meeting new people. Take your headphones off. Sit next to a face you don’t know in your first lecture, not next to someone who you think you recognize from that vacation selfie. Don’t walk past the unknown. Look at the unknown in the face, and maybe even ask for a name. Embrace the uncertainty that comes with a first day, a first week, a first year.

Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rd462@cornell.edu. The Dery Bar runs every other week this semester.