November 21, 2022

SOKOL | Spirited Away: Cornell Community or Lack Thereof

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My first big Cornell hockey game last year was a surprise on several counts. The first were the student section chants. As my eyes widened with each new onslaught at the opposing team, my friends decided I was too “Midwestern nice” — the cornfields had not prepared me for Cornell. What left a bigger impression, though, was the unabashed school spirit. The cohesion at Lynah Rink brought about a rare sense of campus community: students united by nothing more than pride for our team (and exaggerated disgust at our opponents).

As the student section’s cries faded away, I continued to wonder why the Cornell unity I felt in Lynah can be so hard to find outside the rink. Over time, I’ve concluded that the University lacks a sense of positive institutional community, which in turn makes it difficult for individuals to find their spaces on campus. 

College anywhere can be a lonely place, but sometimes it feels like Cornellians have accepted a level of loneliness as the norm. “Everyone has a rough first year or two,” I’ve been told before. “Cornell’s isolating, but you’ll find your people.” Yet, the nonchalant acceptance that finding your place on campus could — and maybe should — be a years-long challenge is not normal, and it shouldn’t be marketed as such. 

Perhaps, my feelings on this subject are strengthened by the fact that I know college does not have to be this way. I transferred from a big state school, which, despite being three times Cornell’s size, offered a unifying spirit that transcended majors, class years and interests. What larger institutions have aimed to address with tailgates, football games and school pride, and smaller ones through their size is a shared identity — a common thread knitting together people across backgrounds and areas of study. 

Cornell, with its diversity of course offerings, exceptional programs and intelligent students sits somewhere in between these ends of the spectrum, leaving it with little holding us together beyond our name. And even Lynah, which fits less than a third of the undergraduate student body, isn’t enough to solve that.

Splintered across edges of campus, colleges and socioeconomic strata, the Cornell student body can feel more subdivided than it does whole. North Campus, West Campus and Collegetown are each their own world, 15 minutes that can feel like lightyears apart. We are further sequestered within our many colleges, which provide distinctly different and disjointed experiences. Everything from notices of  specific events to heart-breaking emails about a death in the student community gets sent to colleges, not the entire campus, further deteriorating a sense of collective identity.

This lack of overarching unity then translates to the individual level. When searching for clubs to join or forming friend groups, the fragmented environment Cornell curates makes it difficult to create connections.

During my first semester on campus, bright-eyed from my Community at Cornell orientation session, I quickly learned that extracurricular organizations serve not only to foster student bonds but also to prevent them. The competitive nature of our clubs has been written about time and again (and again). Even now, as I try to make my own clubs more inclusive, I watch the semesterly cycle of stress, interviews and student-on-student judgment ensue. 

And, while it might be easy for me as a senior to advise underclassmen that competitive clubs are overrated, it would also make me a hypocrite. I vividly remember feeling that these coveted campus organizations were the key to unlocking “my people” and that if only I could make it through four rounds of interviews, the Big Red Spirit would fill me with unbounded joy.

The reality was that getting into on-campus organizations was only half the battle. While some clubs I’m a part of have blossomed into communities I love, others were actively toxic or passively unwelcoming. Even within organizations, it seems, internal competition or external obligations prevent us from committing fully to any group. 

The sad reality I’ve observed is that what binds many of us is not our interests, hobbies or aspirations, but our work. The most unifying phrases on campus are, “I haven’t started the paper either” and “That prelim crushed me too.” We compare internships, overbook our schedules and get used to rejection, or try to. Cornellians learn to find comfort in communal suffering just as much, if not more than, in communal joy.

While there’s merit to hard work — it’s what got us here in the first place — having that be the primary common denominator among students takes away from the lighthearted community that a college environment should create, or at least offer. 

Granted, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m biased. Half of my college experience was spent under the umbrella of COVID-19, which made it hard to find and build community anywhere, much less in a transient college environment. Yet, my conversations with older students and alumni, and my own experiences before and after the height of the coronavirus  indicate that isolation at Cornell is not just a pandemic phenomenon.

Last week, a group of friends and I gathered for Friendsgiving. Cramped into a Collegetown apartment, we shared couches and cornbread, laughing at how little could be heard over the seven simultaneous conversations. I wandered through Collegetown afterwards, pretending to walk off the copious amounts of mac and cheese, and ended up a few streets away at another friend’s place, where the night left me with pie and a burning desire to read Sartre (who knows what was in that pie).

It was a college evening of gratitude and pleasantly pointless conversation that made me reflect on the communities I’ve come to call my own at Cornell. It was hard not to also think about how difficult these spaces were to find. 

I’m grateful for the friends I’ve made throughout college — from the people I shared a single meal with sophomore year to the ones that I talk to every day. It doesn’t take a Friendsgiving for me to acknowledge that.

Yet, my nights at Lynah or a friend’s apartment have been counterbalanced by the lonely ones in Olin or at a club meeting of acquaintances I’d be too nervous to greet on campus. And, I can’t deny that the peculiar exclusionary, disjointed culture I’ve experienced at Cornell has left a sour taste in my mouth — one that still sometimes makes me question my belonging in any group I’m in and wonder where my place is in this town I’m supposed to call home.

Lia Sokol (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. My So-kolled Life runs every other Sunday this semester.