August 25, 2020

SONG | Two Stories of Club Toxicity at Cornell

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Like many other graduates, I can safely say my most wild, unforgettable and heartfelt college experiences took place among the student organizations I joined at Cornell. Certain memories jump out in vivid color, ever since my time on campus was cut short: sledding down the Slope after a winter storm, dancing at parties to soft music, walking along the gorges at sunrise and many other moments among friends I met in clubs.

But just as I grew to identify with these organizations, and even romanticize them during the isolation of quarantine, I’ve also realized how much I lost my way in them. When the wine nights died down and the lights came back on, time and time again I watched clubs at Cornell shed their facade and transform into stressful environments where members were trapped in cycles of toxic recruitment practices, elections and executive board meetings.

Most unexpected is how campus leaders, and even the faculty of Cornell, are instigators of creating clubs which prioritize high performance over community-building. I first realized there is an overarching flaw in the University’s leadership training while researching a story on the Cornell Engineering Career Fair Team in April 2019. At the time, the club (which organizes the annual career fair for the Engineering School) suddenly kicked out a large portion of its members — out of 30 students in the club, about a third were told they could not return for the following semester. Upon interviewing ejected members, I learned that then-president Yubin Kim ’20 and the eboard performed a series of 15-minute exit interviews, in order to determine which members were worth keeping in the club. During exit interviews and in a presentation delivered at a club meeting, Kim said she was implementing the interviews “to make the club more exclusive” and “prestigious,” according to several members. The exit interviews were then immediately conducted, over the course of one weekend, utilizing a rubric that evaluated each member’s dedication to the team. The members received results via email a few hours after the final interview, in which they were either invited to attend the general body meeting that afternoon or asked not to return.

Talking with Kim, however, I learned more about the underlying motive behind the exit interviews. According to Kim, “the exit interviews were suggested by the advisors of the Engineering Career Center” as part of an initiative to make student organizations more high-performing. Specifically, she was instructed by club advisor Christa Downey, director of the Engineering Career Center, to implement the interviews. Downey wanted ECaFT “to serve as a model for other engineering groups to follow,” according to Kim.

When I interviewed Downey regarding the Engineering Career Center’s initiatives, she said “the goal is to have a high performing team where each member plays a role in contributing to the success of the career fair and other ECaFT sponsored events.” She said that she “works closely with the president and executive board to ensure they are on track for success,” and she and Kim have “talked about how ECaFT can be a model organization regarding inclusivity, professionalism and leadership practices.”

These conversations left me feeling hopeless at first — if even our clubs’ faculty advisors are endorsing high performance above all else, how can student leaders even begin to think differently? And how can true “strong interview practices” and “unconscious bias awareness,” as Downey emphasized she trained the ECaFT eboard in, be effectively utilized in an interview which took only 15 minutes and a decision which took only a few hours after the final interview? As I spoke to students who were forced to leave ECaFT, one sentiment rang true across the board: They felt they had lost a community, and considering the immediacy of the exit interviews and sheer quantity of members kicked out, there was a clear prioritization of performance over personal lives in the club.

Unfortunately, these degrading environments exist in parallel among many organizations at Cornell, and hearing about ECaFT reminded me of my own harrowing experiences with campus clubs over the years. Specifically, during my freshman year, I auditioned for the competitive ballroom team, which consists of a small group of dancers who train together and represent Cornell in competitions around the East Coast. I was swiftly welcomed into a close-knit family. And for a while, my team certainly felt that way — we trained together every day, spent late nights learning the tango in empty classrooms and stayed on campus to celebrate Thanksgiving together. I even moved into an apartment with several teammates.

During my sophomore year, I also became the president of the Cornell community ballroom club, a separate club founded by members of the competitive ballroom team. Rather than being composed of a select group of dancers like the team, the community club was open to anyone, of any skill level, who wanted to learn ballroom. But while the club grew rapidly during my term, I received puzzling reactions from members of the competitive team, who were angry with the number of non-experienced dancers flooding the gates.

I soon learned the reason why: The community club existed primarily to funnel money to the competitive team. Since the team needed extra funding for lessons, years ago it founded a “community” club (a separate organization on paper, but essentially consisting of competitive team members) to receive an additional several thousand dollars every semester from the Student Activities Funding Commission (SAFC). When the competitive team realized I was not complicit in diverting funding away from the community, however, I quickly became an outcast in my “family.” At the same time, I watched an increasing number of young dancers walk away from the competitive team every semester, disillusioned by stressful relationships and taxing competitiveness.

These unethical practices in organizations, unfortunately, are not exclusive to the ballroom team, nor to ECaFT. They are present in many clubs at Cornell to varying degrees, and they are passed from one semester to the next, as new members become influenced by the mentalities of their role-model leaders. As campus leaders, it’s easy to buy into the catharsis of adopting a second persona, in order to escape from the reality of our stressful lives at Cornell and project a false sense of superiority. I’ve seen it happen among friends over the years, and even within myself at times. But leaders often lose sight of who they are collaborating with in their clubs: their peers. Despite their suits and ties, leaders are hardly any closer to perfection than their fellow club members, who may only be a few years younger or older.

As a COVID-19 semester leads to an unprecedented recruitment season, there is no better opportunity to reinvent the mentality of clubs at Cornell. While club selectivity may never change — it is inherent to the nature of Cornellians, after all — this is the perfect chance to implement new methods for fostering healthier organizations. And I believe it begins with prioritizing mentorship and mutual support just as much as high performance. There should be efforts to provide resources for those who are falling behind and more communication to find a middle ground during disagreements.

In a few weeks, our University will welcome a batch of freshmen who are already navigating the confusing pandemic alongside the rest of us. But unlike us, they may never experience Cornell as the bustling school we once knew. They will be in need of friendships like we all did when we started college, perhaps even more so as they emerge from months of isolation. I hope they find the kind of organization I so desperately sought when I stepped foot on campus. And I look forward to the day when they can look back on their time in college and realize that their best memories were with their clubs, without any of the other regrets we too often associate with them.


Kelly Song is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. This is the final time The Songbird Sings will run this summer.