September 15, 2021

STUDENT ASSEMBLY VIEWPOINT | Don’t Blame Your Fellow Students: Focus on Student Solidarity

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Recently, students have directed much of their anger about the condition of dining halls against student workers. These workers (many of whom are my friends, who are already paid low wages and required to work long hours) do not deserve any of the frustration being directed at them. While this unfortunate situation demonstrates the socioeconomic disparities at Cornell, it can also show the need for solidarity among students, especially with our working peers. 

After two years of COVID-19 isolation, it’s understandable that many students at Cornell feel alienated from their fellow students. After all, many of us were unable to interact with classmates beyond a virtual classroom for over a year. And with COVID protocols lingering, we seem to increasingly scapegoat one another rather than realizing what we have in common, as seen with the anger facing student workers. This isolation (both physical and economic) from one another leaves all of us feeling vulnerable. Many students may also feel isolated from those of us in the Student Assembly. 

I’ll start to break this disconnect by introducing myself: I’m Joseph Mullen ’24, and as the Vice President of Internal Operations for the Student Assembly, I see my role as helping build a shared sense of collective power among the student body, to have a shared sense of student solidarity whereby we all fight for and alongside one another. I believe that the S.A. can help students the most by ending the isolation produced by the pandemic and our economic conditions so that we can all unite and rise together. 

The isolation from one another imposed by COVID, as well as the decline in many students’ economic conditions, has likely worsened student mental health, already in decline before the pandemic. Cornell’s Mental Health Review in 2020 identified “the proportion of undergraduates who reported that they were unable to function academically for at least a week due to depression, stress or anxiety increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019.” We can only speculate the additional suffering caused by the COVID pandemic on the student body. 

Unfortunately, we often ignore the role financial conditions play in worsening mental health conditions. It’s easy for us to blame the weather in Ithaca for feeling blue, and much harder to critically examine how the costs of living impact our mental state. But we must look at this economic isolation first if we want to understand how to solve the growing mental health crisis in our student body. The worsening financial conditions of many students must be seen as a driving force for the decline in overall mental well-being; if we ignore the role of material conditions, we come away believing mental health and alienation are individual rather than systemic problems. 

Is a material analysis of the mental health conditions at Cornell such a radical proposition? The report doesn’t think so, as it observes how “student feedback indicated that finances are a major source of stress… students described how insufficient funds for basic needs, books, supplies and travel expenses affect their mental health, academic performance and access to opportunities.” The report arrives at the same solution I advocate: our goal must be “providing students with equitable access to and experience with the abundant offerings of the institution.”

We have a vast array of resources at this wealthy university. It is shocking to think that so many students still struggle to afford the basic necessities like textbooks, and have to pay for a slew of additional fees on top of the burden of a high tuition. Solving this problem will take a shared sense of unity and purpose. Rather than direct anger towards students who have to work to afford a Cornell education, we must direct our collective energies to enhancing their working conditions, and thus our shared circumstances. But the pandemic, in spite of the untold damage it has done to all of us, has also helped us to realize the necessity of altering this system.

This is what I mean by student solidarity: we all come from different backgrounds, but we all have a collective interest in helping those with financial insecurity better navigate this campus. The S.A. has already called on the University to release all financial aid in a recent resolution, and I will do whatever I can to further this cause. Recently, driven primarily by continued delays in financial aid, students even took to posting openly about a protest. We should listen to these demands and do what we can for the betterment of students’ material conditions. I commit my work on the S.A. to the vision of a world where all students have equitable access to the abundant offerings of this institution. I believe that solidarity is the only way we can prove we care about helping one another through the pandemic, financial burdens and the general challenges of being a young person today. 

In turn, we can only ask that all students commit themselves to the betterment of their fellow student, especially those who have struggled the most throughout the pandemic. We can no longer scapegoat and direct our frustration at one another. Anger levelled at student workers, especially in the dining halls, serves absolutely no one. The S.A. will continue to fight for bold changes, but there is much we can all do to stand with one another. To paraphrase Fred Hampton, we aren’t going to fight isolation with more isolation, we’re going to fight it with solidarity. 

Joseph Mullen is the Vice President of Internal Operations of the Student Assembly and a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. Mullen is this week’s author of Student Assembly Viewpoint, a rotating column written by members of the S.A. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Student Assembly Viewpoint runs every other Thursday this semester.