Whenever I meet any Cornell alumni away from Ithaca, I’m never quite sure what to ask about their college experience. The lack of dorm culture on campus means that there is little point in discussing their first-year dorm. In brainstorming any other unique Cornell experience which we all would have shared regardless of college or major, I am really left with two options: either ask which First-Year Writing Seminar they took or how their swim test went. I usually go with the cop-out: “what did you study?”
Cornell lacks a quirky, quintessential college experience that is shared by all its students and championed by the school. It lacks a fabric that unites alumni of all generations. Sure, Slope Day and Dragon Day are great, but no two alumni are bonding over how each one’s dragon looked. Our campus culture is in a quirkiness crisis, and it largely stems from the fact that many of our students are in a hobby crisis: At a school where we are so trained to map out our academics and careers, we lose the ability to set, and take seriously, non-academic goals. Once the commitment to discover other hobbies outside of school dwindles, so does the variety of quirks among students that makes for a more interesting college experience. As a requirement akin to — or even in lieu of — the swim test, Cornell should require students to learn a non-academic skill or hobby over the course of a semester.
I still fondly remember my avid chess-playing and tennis days before college, and I even picked up the ukulele for a time a few summers ago. But the two riffs I learned are long forgotten. Even one of my fellow columnists has lamented the loss of reading for leisure in college. The issue isn’t about having fun. It’s about how our students choose to have fun. Whether “fun” for you means going out or sitting in front of a screen, on this campus, it rarely involves a constructive hobby.
It’s for this reason that I dread having to tell a “fun fact” about myself during icebreakers. I simply no longer have interesting hobbies. Up in arms, and potentially inspired by an episode of Portlandia, my roommates and I realized what we were missing in our lives: quirkiness. We tried many things, ranging from brunching to wearing beanies at all times of day, but we hardly made it through the weekend. I don’t think there was ever any point in my life where I was “quirky,” but all I know now is that I’m the furthest from whatever it means. There is no way around it: I need Cornell to make me quirky — I just can’t seem to do it myself.
A requirement at Cornell to learn a new skill would not just be another opportunity to fulfill major requirements. Instead, it would be the opportunity to learn to solve a Rubik’s cube in 30 seconds, perform magic tricks or even overcome arachnophobia. Students could be grouped based on interests and practice together in seminars guided by experts — which could very well be other students — over the course of a semester. It would all culminate in a day where students present their learned skill to their group at the end of the semester. For a school that forces freshmen to swim laps in a pool to get their diploma for no apparent reason, a program such as this is well within reach. It’s come to the point where I think I need Cornell to withhold my diploma unless I’m finally able to hold a spider in my hand.
In the best case, the built-in gratification of such a program would encourage students to continue setting non-academic goals for themselves in the future. At the very least, the moment we are able to put aside our busy lives and learn new hobbies alongside others is the moment we become a more interesting, quirky campus. The connotation of “any person, any study” has become too focussed on the scholarly kind of “study” — not on the kind that helps us learn new things about ourselves and others in non-academic settings. And if this change means that I’ll have some tricks up my sleeve for an alumni reunion, then I am all for it.
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.