February 6, 2022

DERY | The Cornell Superiority Complex: Chosen, yet Confining

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Watching the recent Saturday Night Live sketch that took place in Bailey Hall, I couldn’t help but have one thought – I’ve never walked into an Ancient Greek poetry forum in that auditorium. When I think of Bailey Hall, I think of the building where I took my first (and only) computer science course; I think of the Cornell Symphony Orchestra performance I attended during my freshman fall semester, when the event’s live streamed recording almost caught me watching football on my phone. 

Yet, SNL depicted the building as a hallowed space for serious scholars, and as I watched, my mind wandered to all those times when people have made assumptions about my ego or pretensions because my student identity is attached to the label “Cornell.” Despite its privileges, there’s a certain stigma attached to that name – one chosen when I enrolled, of course, but disquieting still in several ways.

At the conclusion of a recent summer internship, my roommate from another school teased, “I learned this summer that students from big-name schools are people, too.” 

That statement stuck with me. While I didn’t realize it at the beginning of that job, I needed to demonstrate my capabilities and professionalism to break away from my assigned “Ivy League superiority complex.” Perhaps I didn’t fear my peers losing faith in my ability; rather, I feared losing my own relatability. I wonder when I managed to successfully debunk the notion that I was some Ancient Greek poetry connoisseur – was it during the second soccer match we watched, or the third hike we trekked? The fact that I couldn’t tell unnerved me. 

Yet, I won’t pretend to be any sort of pitiful victim to this stigma; I, too, tightened up when I met the student in the program whose “@princeton.edu” stood out to me as I surveyed the group email recipients list. Sometimes, these labels confer benefits like career opportunities; other times, they manifest themselves in social and mostly harmless ways, like playful jests when I use a big word with friends back home.  

Mingling and networking becomes a tricky business when your peers know the college you attend before knowing who you are. From the moment they look you up on LinkedIn, you have been constrained to a box you may have to work your way out of. This “box” often dictates that Cornellians are supposed to sound intelligent or act exclusive and intimidating. Whether we uphold the image of Cornell’s toted rigor or attempt to downplay this very notion, it’s really all the same: We interact according to the label that is our college degree. 

Dealing with stigma is a battle everyone fights to varying degrees, and the school we choose to attend is a rather minor one at that. Yet, the very fact that this label is unimportant in the long run adds an element of contradiction to the superiority complex we inherit. After all, we choose to come here ourselves, and we should own up to any benefits or detriments that come out of that choice. 

When discussing this subject, it is frankly impossible to avoid the hypocrisy of lamenting Cornell’s stigmas while also enjoying its prestige in other contexts. It is picky, even, to demand that our peers judge our characters independent of our school, but nudge our employers to let it attest to our work ethic and boost our resumes. 

Perhaps, then, it’s not a matter of nudges or demands, but of introspection and an understanding of nuance. . The prestigious connotations that we enjoy with the word “Cornell” come at the cost of having this label speak for us when we are not there to speak for ourselves, or even worse, sacrificing our relatability to certain others. I hope we can take this into consideration as we continue to address the labels of institutions or brands in future education or career decisions.I wish I took it to heart even before arriving on the Hill. 

Roei Dery is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] The Dery Bar runs every other Monday this semester.