September 7, 2020

BETTEZ | About That Freshmen Project Team Ban

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This fall, Cornell has announced that freshmen will not be allowed to join engineering project teams.

In the introductory documents offered to project team leads this semester, among all the social distancing and COVID-related measures, was the phrase: “First-year students will not be allowed to join teams this fall.” My first reaction was sadness for the freshmen who will be barred from many of the opportunities for social connection that project teams offer and that coveted sense of belonging that freshmen are usually afforded.

But then I remembered a conversation I had with a friend in April, in which she described how her well-regarded project team made the conscious decision to avoid recruiting freshmen, as they had realized it massively skews their demographics toward wealthy, white and Asian men. When trying to recruit through organizations like Under-Represented Minorities in Computing (URMC), they realized almost none of them made it onto their team as freshmen because they tended to lack the opportunities wealth buys which make a good project team candidate. They came to the realization that all of the College of Engineering project team leadership needs to come to: Recruitment for freshmen is based solely on their opportunities prior to Cornell, not the students themselves.

Entering your freshman year at Cornell, the disparities between the opportunities afforded to different socioeconomic and racial groups begin glaring apparent.

A magnet technical school, a viable computer science or technical program or the financial freedom to do unpaid summer lab work go a long way in getting a coveted position at a top project team as a first-semester freshmen. With a more routine public school experience and a financial need to work for pay during high school summers, getting just about any spot on a project team as a first-semester freshman is near impossible.

It’s not that students with more opportunities don’t deserve these positions; the truth is that far more students deserve prestigious spots on project teams than will ever get them. And these positions aren’t just about feeling better than other people while wearing your team-branded quarter zip in the designated Duffield alcove someone on your team has been continuously holding since 8:30 a.m. They open job-searching doors:  Vast alumni network at top-tier companies, instant respect from any recruiter familiar with the University and incredible hands-on project experience to discuss in interviews are just some of the benefits offered. As an engineering sophomore, I once spoke to a SpaceX recruiter who told me to not bother to talk to her until I joined a car team, specifically FSAE.

By allowing freshmen students to enroll beginning in their second semester, or even their first semester sophomore year, we can make progress in leveling the playing field. All students will have the chance to use resources offered by the University — ample research opportunities, coding and other technical classes to bring them up to speed with more advantaged students, and help available to pursue personal projects — to have a more equal chance at the opportunities offered by projects teams. By not allowing any students to enter project teams as freshmen, we can maximize the spots available to disadvantaged students and create a College of Engineering with more equal opportunities for all students, no matter their background.

As a senior in the College of Engineering, I’d like to make it clear I don’t really believe this was the reasoning behind the decision. Perhaps the engineering administration wants to reduce stress for freshmen. It seems like a logical extension of previous policies, which have limited first semester freshmen to enrolling later in the semester, and then for a single S/U credit.

Even if this ban is a product of solely COVID-19, I urge project team leadership to keep it for years to come. In doing so, we can make further progress in ensuring that opportunities for success in the College of Engineering are as egalitarian as possible.


Michaela Bettez is a senior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at [email protected]. Bet on It runs every other Monday this semester.