February 22, 2022

SPARACIO | Club Fair, or Unfair? It’s Complicated

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This past week, my fellow peer and opinion columnist Brenner Beard wrote an article entitled “Any Person, Any Study … Any Club?” that comments on the ongoing debate about toxicity within clubs on campus. If you ask any student on campus if club culture is toxic, you will probably get a yes. I would like to further inquire about why this exclusivity persists and how we can change the narrative surrounding it.  

I attended ClubFest multiple times, both online and in person, and I’ve been through multiple recruitment processes. I’ve been rejected from multiple clubs, I’ve been accepted to multiple clubs and I’ve continuously questioned the process. I’ve been grilled on subjects I’ve had only a beginner’s level of knowledge about, and I know it doesn’t feel good. I’ve concluded that this process is complicated, and I understand through talking with my peers that some level of exclusivity is necessary. I do, however, believe that the club system can be reformed to improve student life. 

What is the point of a club? Is it to allow one to explore new passions? Is it to provide one with professional opportunities? Is it to guide one into a community? These questions are essential to understanding why ClubFest exists as it does right now. I’d argue that the point of a club is all of these things. Clubs serve three main purposes: to help people explore interests, to further their career and to make new friends. However, these three purposes come into conflict with each other, creating a hierarchy of clubs based on exclusivity, where more exclusive clubs with more intensive applications offer better opportunities and tighter communities. This exclusivity is what comes into question in Beard’s article, and I think it’s important that we question it in order to uncover why it exists. What are its implications? To what extent should clubs be exclusive?

In short: It’s complicated. 

The world of clubs at Cornell is a world created by students. Students choose to create processes that mirror the college application process (in some ways), students choose to create processes that encourage competition (and even pit individuals against one another for a spot) and students choose to create processes that mirror those of large companies. There are some justified reasons for this, as it is impossible for clubs to function with an extremely large number of students. The small size of some of these clubs allows students to gain hands-on experience and knowledge from peers and real world clients. 

However, students should ask themselves the following questions: To what extent should clubs be created to mirror the real world? Are these processes conducive to learning? Do they afford students the proper opportunity to gain experience, knowledge and connections? Yes, exclusive clubs create many valuable opportunities for some students (not all). So what’s the issue?

Issues that past columnists have articulated are as follows. Intensive applications hinder students from exploring new interests and passions, and they hurt student mental health. Past columnists suggest there is racial bias present in club recruiting processes and that some clubs champion exclusivity and elitism over equality and egalitarianism. Exclusive clubs can be elitist by selecting students with connections to the club and by favoring students who were privileged to have a wider range of opportunities before attending Cornell. 

This exclusivity can come at the cost of student mental health. The laborious club application processes and rigorous club assignments can stretch people thin. Additionally, exclusivity could lead to self-doubt or imposter syndrome. Some clubs hypocritically state upfront that “one needs no prior knowledge to join” but expect students to have skills to debate cases and answer technical questions. It can be easy to second guess yourself if you’re rejected from an exclusive club in a situation like this. Students need to be allowed to “not know” — that’s the only way to learn. 

However, another point of view is that deep knowledge of a subject is important for certain business clubs or engineering project teams with real world clients. If one is rejected from a club on the first try, they have the ability to get into another club or to learn the skill and try again. This is why the club culture exists as we know it. Perhaps pre-professionalism (which is an important part of college) will always conflict with a student’s desire to spontaneously explore passions. This is why a wide range of clubs are offered to students with a wide range of interests. 

So one may ask: Does club culture conflict with Cornell’s motto “Any Person, Any Study?” Not entirely, but there are many ways that club culture can achieve this motto better. 

Students have the flexibility to take a variety of classes and join clubs that are not exclusive. Students have access to advisors, professors and alumni that can offer guidance as well. However, the motto “Any Person, Any Study?” will always be in contention with the dualities of egalitarianism/elitism and inclusivity/exclusivity. Looking specifically at Cornell clubs, this is evident. 

What’s most interesting about the club application process are the narratives that surround it which are sometimes troubling. Students forget that they are in control of the processes that they create. Students can choose to implement reforms such as an add/drop process for clubs. Students can choose to accept a few more applicants into a new member class. Students can choose to record new member education sessions to democratize the inquisition of knowledge. Students can choose to support and empathize with one another throughout the process. If the competitive club application process persists, it can co-exist with student solidarity. 

It’s complicated, but the choice to make the process a little better is in your hands. Don’t forget that. 

Rebecca Sparacio is a sophomore in the Dyson School. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Space Between runs every other Wednesday this semester.