Given the short amount of time we have as undergraduates, I was pretty late to the game in joining The Sun. I applied the summer before my junior year, and became, at the time, the only opinion columnist on staff who was a student of the College of Engineering. I hadn’t felt like I’d written anything of substance in my two years here — I was getting pretty good at churning out mind-numbingly boring lab reports, but my professors weren’t exactly interested in much else I had to say.
It was a stark transition from only one or two teaching assistants reading what I wrote to thousands of students and alumni, for whom I was nothing more than an unfamiliar name on a page voicing an opinion they disagreed with. I hadn’t written anything in years without a grade slapped on at the end and eventually relegating it to the depths of my computer’s memory storage. Luckily, my classes had prepared me well for being told I was wrong and that I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Even though my name and email were attached to the bottom of the column, I never thought that people would actually reach out to me. Who cared about my opinion that much? Regardless of the content, I was touched that anyone even cared enough about what I said to make the effort to pull up their email and write me a message. These people, no matter how critical, kind or downright cruel they were, cared. For better or worse, when we criticize something, we show how much we care. And criticism of something means that we believe it can change, for the better.
One of my favorite messages I’ve received was in response to an article I wrote last year called “Forget the Public Policy School, Give Us a Design School.” Another student emailed me about her difficulty in creating her own design curriculum and her frustration with the scattered resources across Cornell’s colleges. She was a fine arts student with a deeper understanding of the issue than I: she talked about the refusal by both the College of Arts, Architecture, and Planning and the College of Human Ecology to share the resources of their fabrication shops. At the end, she even asked how she could further a movement towards making a Design School, and how she herself could become an opinion columnist.
I’m even grateful for the most negative and ridiculous comments, which usually lurk under the Facebook posts. For every cruel comment expressing that only men, usually white men, are truly deserving of getting into engineering school there were two or three more comments underneath debating and disagreeing.
I became an opinion columnist because I wanted to finally express my years of dissatisfaction with so many aspects of my life here at Cornell. At the time, I realized how frustrated I was with the state of many parts of Cornell: its treatment of its female engineering students; its handling of final-semester grades; not-so-hidden classism. In my two years as a columnist, I’ve kept an ongoing list of ideas I have for articles. It holds 32 ideas now, from how ridiculous it is that we still have to apply to enroll in some classes to how the College of Engineering needs to add a mandatory ethics class to its requirements. But when I look back on this list, I see 32 ways in which I care and believe that Cornell could do better.
And I know what it’s like to dislike something enough that you stop caring about it being better. For example, in my four years here I still have group partners who annoy me simply by being on campus — I never bothered to criticize them because, as vindictive as it sounds, I don’t care about them enough to want them to be better. I want them to be gone from my life.
If I have any advice for the undergraduates I’m leaving behind here it’s that there’s a balance to strike between criticism and exercising the power you have to change things for yourself. As the years go by, it’s easy to get caught up in all the things you wish Cornell could improve or change. It’s easy to get lost in how much it frustrates you. But the truth is, that you probably don’t have a lot of say or influence in what happens here before you leave. And that doesn’t mean you can’t vent or still push Cornell to change for the better. It means that you should also take matters into your own hands, and look for ways that you can take care of each other and yourself.
Michaela Bettez is a senior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at email@example.com. This is the final installment of her column Bet on It.