Katelynn Le/Sun Contributor

March 13, 2022

NGUYEN | My Spring of Surrender

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This semester, I have nothing new to offer to my résume. No clubs, no positions, no titles. On paper, my senior spring looks like a semester of erosion: I’ve let every extracurricular responsibility tumble down my mountain of priorities.

If I’m being generous with myself, I might acknowledge this lull in productivity as a reward for three and a half years of active Cornell toil. Or, if I’m being more self-critical, I might call myself out for just being lazy, too tired and too burnt-out to keep chugging along. Either way, when I touched down in Ithaca at the start of this semester, senioritis quickly came knocking on my door — and who was I not to welcome it inside with open arms?

Last week, I typed out my first-ever two-weeks notice, signed it with black ink and officially resigned from a campus job I’d had since I was a sophomore. I’m no stranger to quitting when the going gets tough: I’ve abandoned responsibilities when met with drama, dissatisfaction or burnout. But this resignation felt different. I quit simply because I wanted to. There wasn’t any point of tension or coworker conflict. I quit because I felt that my time working there was complete, and because I was more than happy to barter work shifts for some extra free time.

This string of reasoning would’ve been wholly foreign to me during any other year of college. I used to chase down extracurricular opportunities like a dog running after a bone. A lot of Cornell students are probably familiar with the hunt for more — the scrounge for more clubs and more positions and more responsibilities to fill up our Google Calendars and, hopefully, our appetites for excess, too. Earlier in college, I felt most fulfilled when I was busiest, knowing that I was doing all I could to rack up points for my résume. I couldn’t fathom abandoning a commitment simply for the sake of no longer wanting to do it.

But this semester, I’ve stepped into a new mindset of moderation. Of letting go. 

The Cornell system is one that economizes our interests: The hefty price tag and name recognition of our Ivy League comes with the pressure to take full advantage of its student opportunities. This is a reality I accepted long before I even stepped foot on campus, name-dropping clubs and programs in my “Why Cornell?” application essay. When I attended ClubFest as a hungry freshman, I walked into Barton with a determination to wring out as much reward as possible from my passions. If I’m interested in writing, maybe I can look for a magazine to write for. And then, if I can network enough and politick my way up, I can climb up to an editor position by junior year, then strut on up to editor-in-chief by senior year. It was a typical line of Cornell logic: We figure that interest exploration needs to be validated, which we strive for through listserv sign-ups and g-body meetings. And then, if we’re lucky, our passions can also be commodified as social and economic capital once we clinch e-board positions and officer titles. Our talents can be used as leverage; our passions can be used as stepping stones.

It’s no question that extracurriculars can open doors to connection, community, development and opportunity. But Cornell’s student culture is one that too often confuses one’s selfhood with their labor. Our identities are intertwined with the commitments that we put effort into. In icebreakers and introductions, I’ve listened to peers recite their laundry lists of student involvements as badges of personhood. At points throughout my college career, I’d waded so deep into my extracurricular commitments that I started to understand my identity as a product of whatever position or club swallowed my schedule for the semester. There’s no irony lost on me by the fact that I’ve turned my obsession with Zeus soups, crossword puzzles and constantly being in Klarman into personality traits — classic calling cards of anyone who’s been an editor for The Sun.

The four-year expiration date of college makes us feel like we need to spend all our time busying ourselves to extract its maximum potential. We accept that the idea of structure is the sole means of assigning validity to our time. Which, as a result, makes it easy for our labor to become what we care about and our involvements to become who we are. But now, in my senior spring, two months away from the Big Red finish line, I’m finally seeing the light.

I’ve found myself replacing the odd hours after class — typically spent rushing to meetings and messaging on Slack — with meaningful time engaging in activities that spark joy. My roommates and I have carved out a chunk of our Thursday nights to cook and invite friends over for dinner. I’ve spent more time this semester trying to explore the interests that excite me: drawing, reading, making soups, snapping pictures of Ithaca, learning to paint graphic makeup on my friends’ eyelids. 

It wasn’t until I untethered myself from our culture of excess that I was able to unearth the bounties that so many student organizations had promised me as a freshman: connection, community, interest development and identity formation. It’s almost like I can hear myself better in this quiet, like I can finally breathe without the congestion of my old commitments. It’s been in this spring of surrender that I’ve felt the freest.

Niko Nguyen is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Fault Line runs every other Friday this semester.