October 27, 2019

POORE | Work on Your Empathy, Not Your Resume

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In lab for one of my classes last week, I (Colton) counted the teeth of a mammal skull in order to identify the organism as Mephitis mephitis — the striped skunk — Family Mephitidae, Order Carnivora.

And at the same time, Cynthia sat in a lecture in which she did nothing but grade her own problem set for the full hour and 15 minutes.

Afterwards we met up, as we have done frequently over the past two years, to discuss how utterly cheated Cornell has made us feel — to talk about how the reality of college has been so different from the fantasy we were originally sold.

The collegiate vision Cornell promised us was intellectual curiosity. We would spend four years among the brightest and most talented of our peers. We would connect with each other in meaningful ways, gaining empathy and promoting our personal growth. We would work alongside brilliant professors in order to solve the world’s problems. But Cynthia and I are seniors now, and she is busy grading her own homework while I am memorizing that the front feet of koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are schizodactylous.

When we graduate from Cornell, we’ve been told we’ll be successful — meaning that we’ll be exceptionally good at solving problem sets (and maybe even have a job). Whether we’ll be any good at solving real-world problems is much less clear — unless that problem is koala conservation.

Because while we’re here, we’re conditioned to place value on things that aren’t valuable to the outside world or to ourselves. In our pursuit to fulfill requirements we’re compelled to do well in classes we don’t really care about and aren’t able to spend as much time on the ones we do like. Nobody has time to connect with anyone else when we’re too busy staying up until 3 a.m. finishing tomorrow’s homework — unless, that is, to compete with our friends to decide, once and for all, who is the most stressed out.

As other columnists have observed, Cornell’s emphasis on grades and prestige lead to a campus culture that glorifies stress. What Cynthia and I have realized is that our collective romanticization of “stress Olympics” has produced students that suffer from a lack of empathy and a lack of personal happiness.

It can be dangerously easy to fall into the Cornell mindset precisely because it doesn’t force us to push the boundaries of our comfort zone. It’s stressful in a way that can be comforting. When we’re too busy running from one meeting to another and cramming for a deadline, we don’t have to think about the things that actually matter to us.

In pursuit of intellectual curiosity, I’ve taken 20 or more credits each semester beginning my sophomore year. I’ve (unsuccessfully) balanced classes with jobs with research with clubs. By this point, I’ve talked to students from every college about the varying magnitudes of my stress.

The result is that I’ve closed myself off to meaningful interactions. I haven’t given myself the time to connect with people beyond the details of our day-to-day existence. I’ve been so busy feeling guilty that I haven’t begun to do the things that are important to me. I haven’t started that novel — or even that short story — that I’ve always dreamed of writing. But it doesn’t even keep me up at night  like it used to — because I’m simply too tired to think that far. Whenever I feel unsatisfied with myself, I can memorize more cellular pathways and drink more coffee. And I’ve gotten a double-major out of the experience, so I guess I’m successful — at least on paper. But please don’t ask me about who I am outside of my interview persona, because I haven’t been taught how to respond (I’m taking the class next semester).

When Cynthia and I meet to talk every week, we’re shocked at how cold we’ve become. We sit over coffee, two grumpy old-folks, reminiscing on all the times we were forced to pull all-nighters, all the events we planned that flopped because people were too busy to attend. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. We remember the defining memories we’ve made in the hours spent outside the classroom.

One week, Cynthia told me about a game she plays with her friends at parties called “Hot Seat.” They invite a stranger to sit in the “hot seat,” set a timer for eight minutes and drill them on deep questions they based off of the New York Times’ 36 Questions that Lead to Love.

What she discovered was that it’s a lot more engaging to start a conversation by asking about someone’s most treasured memory or their definition of friendship, as opposed to feigning interest in someone’s major, hometown and graduation year. On Slope Day, Cynthia played this game with a group of wrestlers, and by the end had realized that they were some of the nicest and most genuine people she had met at Cornell.

When she told me this, I thought of a quote from the novel Middlemarch: “People are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” But they’ll only be better if we let them. If we’re only interested in how many credits the kid behind us in lecture is taking, how much they earned at their internship or how long they spent on the last problem set, we’ll continue to see them as competition and not as people. We’ll be complicit in the stress-culture that we’re so quick to criticize.

So when you look at course roster for next semester, ask yourself: are you taking these classes because they’re compelling to you or because you have to? And if you think it’s because you have to, take a step back to think about what’s making you feel that way. While you’re at it, reach out to that person you’ve been meaning to catch up with and ask them about something besides how much work they have. Maybe even invite them over for a round of “Hot Seat.”

But don’t buy into Cornell’s trap. Because at the end of the day, no amount of Ivy League prestige can make up for a student who’s been duped into believing that stress makes them valuable, that their workload makes them interesting and that resume-building makes them well-rounded.

Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Cynthia Chu is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Help Me, I’m Poore runs every other Monday this semester.