September 25, 2019

DERY | How to Correct ClubFest

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ClubFest is a tease. The long-awaited Sunday afternoon came and went, as did the freshmen who emptied North Campus and congested Barton Hall. Our task was simple: walk around, shake some hands, share some NetIDs and so on. But add in hundreds of other freshmen and a two-foot visibility radius, and voila: Any chance of meaningful interaction with club leadership vanishes. In the midst of the chaos, email lists are saturated with overcommitted rookies who gladly feed their NetIDs into Google Forms or Excel spreadsheets. In the ensuing days, waves of information sessions hit, as does the ominous realization that any potential free time during the semester has disappeared.

Even so, during the half-hour daze that was my ClubFest experience, I was caught off-guard. How could so many organizations demand their own application, fast-approaching deadline and interview? It seemed so excessive a demand from a freshman confused about which clubs to sign up for in the first place — let alone apply to.

In the aftermath of ClubFest, a friend I regularly saw in morning lecture was absent throughout the week. We had not eaten or studied together as we usually do, and so when he abruptly resurfaced during the following week’s lecture, his reason for his absence was concise: “club apps.” And he is not alone.

The application to-do list snowballs as we weave through the club booths, and before we know it, we’re faced with the real possibility of skipping both class and sleep in a scramble to meet deadlines — a choice a second-week freshman should never have to make. For freshmen already certain of their club pursuits, this decision may be worth it. But it simultaneously repels those of us who aren’t.

Prospective applicants inclined to explore new interests are turned off by the possibility that their efforts would be in vain if the club isn’t the right fit after all. In our recruitment system, there is simply no way to know if the extracurricular is truly a match until it’s too late; a mere overview pitched by the club booth is supposed to suffice. Applicants take a risk that comes with excessive down payment in the form of a grueling application — one that forces those who fall behind elsewhere into debt. And although applying can act as a necessary weed-out for those unwilling to devote themselves, expecting us to decide on a club after just one brief info session misses the point. Crossing the application barrier into uncharted intellectual waters requires an informed decision, one that cannot be reached over the course of a slideshow summary and before the following week’s deadline.

Therefore, our system incentivizes students to remain within their interest bubbles, as daunting applications stand in the way of interdisciplinary exploration. We are institutionally pushed toward safe bets and deterred from risk-taking. Pre-meds stick to pre-med, pre-laws stick to pre-law and Ezra rolls in his grave. We aren’t compelled to apply to clubs that spark our interests, but instead to those that maximize return on investment. Joining is no longer spontaneous; it’s goal-oriented. Therein dies the idea that a club should capture one’s passions.

A mutually beneficial and perhaps more realistic way to alleviate this defunct system is an add-drop period for clubs. We aren’t forced to commit to a semester-long class before having attended a few lectures, so we also shouldn’t be pressured to apply to a club before actually experiencing it — which entails more than a customary information session. This trial period would allow prospective members to attend club meetings for a few weeks before choosing — or not choosing — to apply. Incoming freshmen would have a greater understanding of the club’s inner workings that can’t always be captured by a ClubFest booth poster.

On the flip side, it would give club leadership the opportunity to better evaluate the merits of potential applicants. Beyond canned application responses and forced interview dialogue, club members would observe future applicants in real time before reaching a conclusion. In a method akin to rushing a fraternity, both the clubs and their potential members should be certain of the mutual fit before committing substantial time and effort.

In the absence of such an option, ClubFest is indeed a turn-off. Many student organizations immediately assign applications that scare away those of us who aren’t necessarily too lazy to complete them (or so I tell myself), but are instead deterred by a lack of exposure to the organization.

Our broken recruitment system forces those potentially willing to step out of their comfort zones back in them. The lack of adequate information combined with the clubs’ premature demands is too strong a repelling force. As a result, we gravitate toward activities we have always done, dissuaded from exploration by tedious applications.

I can only hope that by next year’s ClubFest, wide-eyed freshmen will be welcomed into Barton with a grace period, not the rude awakening of fast-approaching deadlines. This way, joining clubs will be collaborative, exciting and spontaneous — not a race to the finish line. Systemic change is necessary to make “any person, any study” a reality outside the classroom, too.

Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdery@cornellsun.com. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.