September 25, 2019

SULLIVAN BAKER | To Get the Most out of Cornell, Build Something Here

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A few nights ago, after a long day of Cornell Political Union recruitment, we collapsed into a Collegetown establishment’s rickety chairs, ordered heaps of greasy food and became embroiled in a heated discussion. One of our executive board members, a sophomore with a promising future in the organization, had asked if she should study abroad, and our table was split. But our conversation wasn’t actually about studying abroad. The executive board member had really asked, “Should I commit to campus service for my entire college career? Is it worth it?”

My answer was a resounding yes, but only because she has the right attitude toward campus engagement, one too rare on a campus where “leadership” is an expectation but thoughtful, deliberate engagement is optional. Her attitude reflects one of my most deeply-held beliefs: one born out of six grueling yet exhilarating semesters of campus engagement. To impact Cornell, invest in your fellow Cornellians, with an eye toward building community in the spaces you call home.

Such a mindset is the foundation of meaningful campus impact. If you can build a community, you can build an organizational culture. If you can build a culture, you can build a Cornell institution. And if you can build an institution, you can leverage its power to shape the future of our campus.

Even just a single person who’s open, friendly and earnestly committed to an organization can have an outsized positive influence on a community, just as a single person who foments unproductive conflict can do serious damage to a community. So don’t underestimate your ability — even if you happen to be a first-semester freshman — to create a place for yourself within a campus organization and help shape its future.

When an organization is built on a thriving community whose members work towards common goals, share similar values and feel that an investment in the organization is an investment in each other, members engage enthusiastically and without being prodded. Promising younger members, eager to contribute, make ambitious bids for executive board positions; general body members give up entire weekends for recruitment and senior members stick around even as other responsibilities loom. Enthusiasm becomes infectious, less-engaged members feel empowered and motivated to devote time to the organization, and the group’s culture becomes self-sustaining.

In contrast, organizations that lack cohesive, tight-knit communities are vulnerable to extinction, because it’s incredibly difficult to foster enthusiasm for — to make people go the extra mile for — a group whose members don’t feel invested or included. And for an organization to run smoothly, let alone have a meaningful impact on campus, it must have a large core membership willing to make exceptional sacrifices for its success. When less cohesive organizations experience challenges, the members best suited to address the challenges don’t step forward, and problems fester until the organization slowly dies or collapses in a supernova of conflict.

An intensely community-minded approach is also deeply gratifying for those who adopt it. There are few things more satisfying than looking around a room of friends, complete strangers before they joined your organization, and realizing that you played a part in bringing them together. And there are few things more rewarding than seeing a young member who entered your organization as a quiet freshman grow as a leader and come into her own. You won’t feel the same sense of accomplishment (or vicarious accomplishment) if you are not invested in the success and wellbeing of your fellow community members.

College is a transient experience,  leadership titles mean little once you enter the world beyond college and your organization’s campus initiatives might fall short of your goals. But friendships — and the growth one gains from them — are more apt to last. To create spaces in which they can be built is among the most meaningful acts of service one can perform here.

In addition, if you focus simply on remaining engaged and doing right by those around you, you partially inoculate yourself against the pressures of the Cornell rat race. You don’t need a fancy executive board title to be a powerful voice for your values, a devoted friend or an anchoring presence within an organization. If you recognize the value of your personal contributions to a community, you’ll be better able to resist the compulsion to chase titles you may not need or even want. In fact, some of the most transformational leaders on this campus have never helmed an organization, and the bearers of some of Cornell’s most prestigious titles have never been transformational community leaders.

So, if you’re caught up in our culture of ambition, pause for a moment. Try not to stress about whether you’ll get it into that prestigious fraternity literally everyone wants to join, whether you’ll gain clout if you manage to land a term as your group’s president or whether your on-campus involvement can give you skills to flex in a Goldman interview. Don’t seek positions of leadership simply because it’s what Cornell culture dictates, and don’t pursue mere titles to pad your resume.

Instead, ask yourself two questions. Which spaces on campus mean the most to you? And what can you offer the people within them? Once you’ve identified where and how you can uplift, invest as much as you reasonably can and ensure that your investments catalyze relationships. Start here, no matter what you hope to achieve on this campus, and the rest will flow naturally.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at jds526@cornell.edu. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.