Common threads

Oscar Melendrez

It’s always nice to know what people think of you. According to the Princeton Review’s Web site, “It is difficult to create a profile of a typical Northwestern student … there are, however, a few common threads running through the student body.”

But whether these “few common threads” are strong enough to create a supportive community is debatable. Is the Princeton Review trying to imply that NU students are connected because of our commonality? Does that also imply that we are disconnected if they don’t fall into the stereotype of “nerdy but fun, and very passionate … interesting people?”

I had hoped it would be exactly the opposite, and after talking to several students and faculty on and off campus, my hopes were confirmed. To NU students, community means a sense of belonging, a feeling of being connected to something greater than ourselves.

There’s one other important factor influencing all this interaction. NU Sociology Prof. Gary Alan Fine has identified the campus as having subcommunities. “There are various groups of people operating within the same space,” he says.

These subcommunities are directly related to size, and as the university expands, the need for them becomes more dire. Theatre students perform in Waa-Mu, Sigma Chi members debut the season premiere of “Family Guy,” the philanthropy-minded pack their bags to attend the annual Suitcase Party and journalists try to decipher what it all means in articles for PLAY.

“It’s almost human nature to have smaller communities within the larger community,” says Communication sophomore Nick Kanellis.

With our overwhelming size, the common threads that supposedly hold us together just can’t stretch that far, Fine says. “We don’t have an intense behavioral community,” he says. “It’s impossible for everyone to know each other.”

That’s why we elect representatives.

Student Politique

The recent ASG elections in April featured candidates who drew heavily upon the lacking community issue. EVP candidate Ketica Guter, a Weinberg junior, says community building is a concern of hers and used it as a prominent feature in her campaign.

“The Northwestern community is composed of various smaller subsets that work together and function effectively,” she says. “Yet there is no school-wide support system.”

But some students at NU say they think the task of community building is far too complex for the initiative-obsessed ASG representatives.

“It’s such a lofty vision,” says Cathy D’Avanzato, an Education senior. “We are sometimes skeptical about ASG and their efforts.”

The College Feminists member has a good point. The job might be too overwhelming for ASG alone, especially when our school pride is based more on prestige and ranking rather than a general love for the university. Perhaps we care too much about what other people think of us.

Purple Pride

Guter had a plan. Her much loved “I Love Northwestern” Day would occur one Friday after class during Winter Quarter to celebrate the university. Students would take over Norris, have free food, watch group performances, initiate in class rivalries and learn more about NU traditions and, in the process, foster community.

Although she placed third in the April election, Guter says she wants to continue to be involved in student politics and bring a renewed sense of school spirit to NU. Guter’s answer to athletes feeling ostracized because of the strenuous academic and athletic demands on their time and energy is quarterly pep rallies. Uniting the student body to foster a sense of school pride through athletics might be the way to go. After all, other mid-sized, private, prestigious schools have been successful with encouraging sports programs.

“It seems like the support for our basketball team is very prevalent,” says Halley Carmack, a Duke University freshman majoring in linguistics. “Everyone is involved in that one way or another.”

There are some students who consider pep rallies and class rivalries to be something happening at Northwestern High in Oregon but not here. Generally we are calm and collected about our sporting events. Seldom are we driven wild with superficial enthusiasm.

All Work and No Play

“This school is so geared to academics that I think it’s easier for people to seclude themselves from the rest of Northwestern,” says Weinberg junior Nidhya Navanandan.

The incoming co-chair of Northwestern Community Development Corps experienced community building in the least likely of places — the classroom. In her large physics class, Prof. Arthur Schmidt provided the students with clickers so they would be able to answer each other’s questions. “He wanted to encourage us to talk to our neighbor to build relations and maybe later on create study groups,” Navanandan says.

How you define an academic major also can affect the consequences of a particular community. If the school had classes that only certain majors can take, then community will be built within that major, but exclude everyone else, Fine says. That explains the strong allegiances to Medill, McCormick or Kellogg, but not NU as a whole.

Weinberg is the one school that fosters a sense of overall NU community, says Corey Robinson, a Weinberg junior. “Even though a lot of students have an idea of what they want to study, they are not sectioned off in their department,” he says. “It’s not like at NYU where you are in Tisch or Stern (colleges) and have no connection to the greater school.”

NU alum and University of Houston Prof. Anthony Gary Dworkin explains why NU’s academic rigor influences its community building more directly.

“In schools where there’s a strong identification with the profession, the feeling of community is less prevalent,” Dworkin says. “It seems to me that college students are more jaded than they were in my generation.”

Victims of Apathy

“We are a little fragmented, I guess, but high school was fragmented,” says Kristin Burns, an RTVF freshman. “So was grade school. It’s only natural. People segment themselves with groups they identify with.”

According to Burns, you can’t force people to be a part of a community. That’s counterproductive, she says.

“Let’s do this as a team. Why? We weren’t a team before,” she says of community building propaganda. “Some people just don’t want to hang out with certain people most of the time. It’s that simple.”

Robinson says this apathy might be the result of our herd mentality. According to Robinson, we have similar backgrounds, we talk the same, and if one of us is apathetic … well, the rest follow.

“The school is definitely open-minded and it’s very diverse when it comes to interests, but it’s very conformist when it comes to what people wear and what they do,” says Robinson, who is also the Social Chair for Rainbow Alliance.

Where are my Dolce & Gabbana heels? I’m going to the Keg.

The Missing Link

Navanandan lived in Elder Hall her freshman year, but the following year she moved off-campus and all her friends were dispersed throughout campus. Her social connections were broken.

“We always say that we are going to get together sometime, but we never do,” Navanandan says.

And that was before Elder became an all-freshman dorm this year. Freshmen now are forced to leave Elder their sophomore year. They are forced to be dispersed.

“We need to focus on the freshmen and help them build strong social networks so they don’t feel isolated,” D’Avanzato says.

Three major ways freshmen are introduced to the community are through residential life, student organizations and fraternity and sorority involvement. If the freshmen are connected immediately, they will retain those connections and reinforce them as the years go by.

But Fine points out that we don’t have a festival, a celebration where we all come together and embrace the community — perhaps along the lines of Guter’s “I Love Northwestern” Day.

And Dillo Day?

“The faculty
is not very involved with Dillo Day,” Fine says.

Something tells me there’s a good reason for that.

We’ll All Float On

But Medill junior Scott LeBlanc says he doesn’t think NU is in a particularly bad predicament. “I don’t see this disunity,” he says. “Whenever I’m walking to class, I see at least one person that I know.”

Considering its unique characteristics — being mid-sized, largely undergraduate, private, pre-professional and in a small-town with proximity to urban interaction — NU is trapped between Ivy League snobbery and state school debauchery. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“As a freshman, my first two quarters I was just like, ‘Oh God!'” Burns says. “But then, by the third quarter, communities started being built on their own through the dorms and student groups.”

Some NU students, then, are proud to be here and appreciate the second home it has become. We may not flash our purple gear (even though Campus Gear is banking on our NU paraphernalia craze) or jiggle our keys (even though we often create a discordant symphony during those football games), and we may not be friends with Willie on thefacebook (even though Willie the Wildcat and Willie D. Wildcat have more than 1,900 friends combined). But maybe that’s because those actions would just be stating the obvious. Who are we trying to convince here?

But that doesn’t mean some of us can’t fall through the cracks.

It All Falls Down

Incoming NCDC co-chairs Navanandan and Lauren Parnell say NU’s common threads need to be more intertwined to to be able to catch the students who do fall.

“I’ve met some people who hated it here because they didn’t feel connected,” says Parnell, an Education sophomore. “We don’t have a NU net, and it’s a major problem when students feel like they don’t have a home.”

Robinson says community starts from the bottom and works its way up.

“It’s more strategic to do it through the student groups on campus to get people involved and excited about NU, but student groups often don’t realize that they are part of a larger group,” he says.

Parnell says NU has a very insular structure.

“Right now, it reaches up, but it only occasionally extends across,” she says. “Recently I’ve been literally seeing a change. Student leaders are reaching out, and they’re doing it on purpose.”

Perhaps no musician has captured the frustration, the disillusionment and disconnected reality of college with more vibrancy than Kanye West: “Back to school and I hate it there, I hate it there/Everything I want I gotta wait a year, I wait a year.”

Maybe he’s right. Maybe we have to wait. Maybe, after four years here, after we graduate, we will find that sense of community we’ve all been trying so hard to achieve. College is not the end of adolescence, it’s the beginning of adulthood and the first years are only prep work. In the murky waters of the real world, the only compass giving us direction will be each other.

Medill freshman Oscar Melendrez is a PLAY writer. He can be reached at [email protected]