Going Clubbing: Clubs at Cornell

Why we compulsively join clubs in college

By Melvin Li


During the 2014-2015 academic year there were over a thousand student organizations at this university—almost one club for every kid at my high school. Download the 25-page Orgsync PDF and count them if you like. These clubs include the Film Club, the Adult Film Club, the Surf Club, Take Back the Tap, the Teszia Belly Dance Troupe, the Pokemon League, and societies for a host of different countries around the world (except for Kyrgyzstan). Walk-on clubs like Rainy Day are always happy to take in new members at any time, while more competitive clubs such as the Whistling Shrimp, Cornell Bhangra, and Yamatai actively encourage all who are interested to come to their auditions. And to the great relief of our parents, mentors, club recruiters, and even ourselves, many of us here at Cornell eventually find our paths in the organizations we join.

Stepping onto Cornell’s campus for the first time, my biggest concerns were being away from home and not being able to make friends among the 3,222 other freshmen who enrolled that fall as the class of 2017. I was sure I would end up spending the whole year hiding in my room. Instead, as I walked around campus the following day, I was quite literally swept into the Big Red Marching Band, one of the first Cornell student organizations to begin recruiting in the fall. To make a long story short, I spent the remainder of freshman year going to class and going to band, where most of my friends were, and that was perfectly alright with me.

The Bank of Mom and Dad, however, wasn’t as pleased with my progress. That summer, I was fed a double cocktail of advice that countless knowledgeable adults tell college students every year: “You need to be more active on campus” and “You need to network and form connections.” As an English major I had to get to know other English majors and people who shared my interest in writing, and I figured the easiest way to do that was to join writing clubs on campus. So come sophomore year I pulled a stunt common among students who had never been to Club Fest before. I headed down to Barton Hall and signed up for three clubs that fit my interests: The Cornell Daily Sun (The Princeton Review’s favorite college newspaper), Rainy Day (Cornell’s undergraduate literary magazine), and of course the lovely little magazine you’re reading right now. I knew I was wading into a lot of commitments, but I wanted to devote a lot of my free time to extracurriculars after having almost none freshman year.

What I did not expect was that I would end up spending most or almost all of my free time with clubs and the people in them. Now in my case this might be because I suck at time management, but many college students who devote themselves to extracurriculars do so for reasons ranging from passion about the club’s function, to a desire to spend time with the people in their clubs or pad their resumes. Don’t get me wrong—I love parading around at football games, covering events on campus, reading literary submissions, and writing articles like these. But I, like all students here, also have classes, exams, papers, and other important things that I’m supposed to worry about. My parents sent me to Cornell first and foremost to get an education, and so for me tomorrow’s classes take priority over today’s clubs. But getting a good education and dedicating oneself to clubs don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“Stepping onto Cornell’s campus for the first time, my biggest concerns were being away from home and not being able to make friends among the 3,222 other freshmen who enrolled that fall as the class of 2017.”

With their most immediate goals fulfilled (attending stimulating classes at an elite university on their way to a lucrative job), students would be expected to attend fewer clubs after getting into college, but actually the opposite has been observed. Students at Cornell and most universities in the United States participate in many times more student organizations than the typical high school student. So what about extracurricular activities keeps students involved around their campuses throughout their university years? Many college students attend clubs not only regularly but eagerly and passionately, managing their time and schedules to accommodate what have become integral parts of their lives. Why do we often become so passionate about the clubs we join that we desperately look forward to afternoon rehearsal or evening practice, and bond more closely with our co-club members than the people with whom we attend class or live? And why does this happen when these clubs aren’t always related to the fields we plan to find careers in?

One reason is that college clubs are often continuations and intensifications of our high school interests and passions. I certainly followed this track: I’d been in my high school marching band since ninth grade and written for my schools’ newspapers since seventh, and I had no intention of letting either of these passions die upon entering college. This pattern applies especially to students who join club sports in college without plans to pursue careers in sports. Peter Li, a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences, arrived at Cornell fully intent on joining Club Swimming because he had spent nine years as a member of a swimming club back home and two years on his high school’s varsity swimming team. Although he plans on going into statistics and finance, he refuses to give up a sport he enjoys.  “I swam club before and the feeling of being part of a team and doing something I’m okay at was something I hoped to relive in college,” says Li. Although Li eventually left the club because its heavy time commitments conflicted with his schoolwork, he has taken up lifeguarding as a much more flexible way of remaining close to the pool.

Whether or not you join with a social goal, socializing is an undeniable appeal of many clubs in college. Even the Cornell Project Teams website states that perhaps the most important incentive to joining a team is the opportunity to “have fun while working on projects that you are passionate about.” Taking time off of schoolwork or other obligations for the sake of being together is a powerful sign of attachment no matter how you look at it, and so inevitably members of a club who meet regularly will bond even if they come from different backgrounds and fields. We’re not talking about the casual, once-a-week gigs in high school either—some of the more intense student organizations in college require multiple meetings a week.

Ethyn Leong, a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is in marching band, Hawaiian Club, Japan-United States Association (JUSA), Cornell Wushu, Food Science Club, and Cornell Gourmet Club. He said that while he joined the Food Science Club and Gourmet Club because he is a food science major, he joined his other clubs mostly for non-academic reasons and now spends a significant portion of his time on pastimes not related to his field of study. “I joined marching band and JUSA just cause,” Leong said, “I joined Hawaiian Club because they made me join, and I joined Gourmet because I’m a food science major.” Leong first joined Wushu after being introduced to it by a friend and stayed in the club because he enjoys the personal discipline, rigorous exercise, and cooking opportunities it provides him. Being a part of so many clubs does take a toll, so excellent time management skills are a must if one wishes to get good grades and still be an active extracurricular member. “Think about it like this,” Leong said of fitting all his clubs into his schedule, “how often do you think I socialize during the day?” Spending every night at practice or socializing with clubmates means that, like other heavily involved students, he is often very busy catching up with work during the day.

Unlike undergraduate admissions officers, graduate schools and employers look more at experience in your chosen field instead of simple well-roundedness, so joining tons of different clubs is not necessarily the greatest job-hunting strategy.  That being said, some clubs and student associations do provide college students with career opportunities while requiring very little effort and dedication in return. For Niranjin Ravi, a sophomore computer science major in the College of Engineering, something as simple as reaching out to a professionally-oriented club helped expose him to internship openings. “I’m in ACSU, the Association for Computer Science Undergraduates,” Ravi said. “I don’t go to any of the meetings but I’m part of the list-serv. It’s really to help people get jobs and there’s a lot of information on internship opportunities.” As Alexandra de Leon mentions on the AfterCollege blog, professionally motivated clubs can also be highly beneficial beyond the listserv. She recalled how an astronomy major friend attended an Engineers Without Borders event for free pizza and ended up realizing that civil engineering was actually the right major for her. De Leon said that joining clubs “gives you the option of exploring a career without fully committing,” pointing out that professional organizations for students usually invite employees in the field to share their insights at speaking events, provide their members with internship opportunities, and even help members develop hard skills.

It’s clear that we cannot simply discredit clubs as a waste of valuable time and tuition money. There are many perfectly valid reasons why college students might choose to adjust their daily schedules to attend clubs and other associations. Furthermore, clubs are voluntary, which means that one of the primary things keeping members coming back is their own devotion to each other and shared interests. Here at Cornell and in my experience, clubs are spaces to form deep friendships, pursue long-lasting passions, and perhaps advance a career network all at once. While joining too many clubs may carry more burden than benefit, college students will continue to set aside time for activities other than class and work, and will continue to enrich their lives long into the future.

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