March 29, 2022

AGGARWAL | What I Found Outside of Competitive Club Culture

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Club culture is integral to all students’ experiences, whether they like it or not. This culture is not necessarily unique to Cornell — though I cannot definitively say or quantify its impact in higher education across the nation. Here on our campus, I see that it has created a herd mentality with both pros and cons, but from the perspective of a student founder, I believe there is a point where obsession with club culture does more to stifle the creativity of the student body than encourage it. 

I speak from the perspective of an undergraduate senior who is/was involved in a few major clubs with time commitments ranging between six to ten hours per week each on average. One is a prominent dance team, a second is a well-known consulting club and another still is a university-backed project team. For the first two years of college especially, I found myself devoting a lot of time to the work and social commitments of each club — it’s worth noting that these clubs in particular were not casual commitments, although that is the nature of many clubs at Cornell. 

I think of my college experience as two different stories: the first two years of which were spent building up my social experience and my clubs, and the latter two focused more on my personal endeavors. Now nearing the end of the latter half, the contrast of the two revealed to me how tunnel-visioned I had been and how my university’s competitive club culture played into that. Upon arriving on campus, most students are intently focused on finding some social footing and learning about the dynamics and opportunities of the campus — which clubs, events, people are fun, popular, meaningful, etc. Club culture is thrown into our faces with intense paper, digital and social advertising. 

It has become a widely-believed narrative on campus that clubs are the way to social life, connections and experiences (outside of Greek life, although my experience can expand to include those types of “clubs,” as well). What this does is pressure new and creative students to conform to certain cultures, new member processes and projects that take time away from curating individual thought. Instead, students must shift to learning the same “foundational knowledge” as tribute to being accepted into those exclusive groups. Thus, eradication of individuality — be it intentional or not — is the consequence of achieving the club’s collective goals.  This is not anyone’s fault — most often these clubs are made to focus on a certain subject matter, so by design they are not meant to encourage that kind of creativity. But because this culture is so overwhelming and all encompassing, unique ambitions and passions are not as supported or popular. 

Finding entrepreneurship was my way of re-engaging with my creativity. Also by design, entrepreneurship at Cornell rewards individual passions. Competitions, Cornell’s start-up accelerator (eLab), meetups with professors and entrepreneurship classes all encourage individual thought and ingenuity. When I tapped into these resources starting my junior year, I felt much more power to engage with the campus at large. In addition to the learning experience, working on these independent, entrepreneurial efforts differs greatly from working on club projects in that the work created sticks with you. I realized that while there are ways to learn in clubs, the work product itself is retained by the club, not the people who had a hand in bringing it to fruition — that is where the issue lies.

Before I explore how I feel this discovery should change Cornell’s club culture, I want to acknowledge the important social components of clubs and explain why I would not change all of my experiences. Entrepreneurship, as rewarding as it might be, can feel like a lonely and discouraging endeavor. What clubs do well is remove some of the activation energy needed to learn and engage with new topics. Additionally, clubs generally scale to sizes of 20-30 students at the least, and they allow students to form social circles of potential new friends and mentors. These communities have been integral to my college experience, and I wouldn’t change that for anything. There is value in having channels to pursue project work and collaborate in teams towards a common goal, but when it supersedes the opportunity to express and pursue new, groundbreaking ideas in a sustainable long term fashion — that’s when I believe it has gone too far.

Cornell faces the best kind of problem: engaged, hungry students looking for ways to learn more and achieve. However, it may be missing awareness of how its funding and funneling of students into clubs have devoid the campus of much of the individuality that could drive innovation, impact and the next generation of Cornellians. Both students and administrators have invested in making these resources available, but the way campus resources, events, and publicity are structured cause clubs to catch students’ eyes before they learn about most other opportunities. I am speaking only from my own experience, but having taken this journey, I recognize how I was shepherded in college and had to make a very intentional change to reap the benefits that I’m seeing now. We are only in college for a limited time, if we are privileged enough to attend. We might as well make the most of it and pursue further discovery of our own opinions, ideas and passions along the way. 

Somil Aggarwal (he/him) is a senior in the College of Engineering studying Computer Science. He can be reached at [email protected]. print(“Somil”) runs every other Wednesday this semester.