Ajith: Smile and wave, Northwestern, smile and wave

Ani Ajith

In one of my classes recently, a top-level administrator swung by to offer her thoughts on challenges facing the University, and to actually have a discussion with us – 15 or so students – on these issues, which included everything from mail rooms to the “Morty effect” to the missing “something” in our disparate community.

Toward the end of our discussion, she told us about a mini social experiment that she conducted earlier that day, as she walked from building to building for meetings. She resolved to greet everyone she walked past with a simple hello and a smile.

Unsurprisingly, she was met with few responses and more than a few weird glances. As she told us this, she demonstrated how difficult it was to greet someone on the sidewalk, simply because everyone was either shuffling with their head looking down or gazing at some indeterminate point in the sky.

We talked about this for a few moments. One of my classmates said that everyone on campus has this aura of distance around them in between classes and on the sidewalks because we’re all either listening to music, already thinking of the next destination, assignment or task – or both. We’re all speedwalking side-by-side on Sheridan, but mentally, we’re miles apart.

Both the administrator and I are from Texas, and the Texas A&M example occurred to us almost simultaneously. On the College Station campus, the sense of culture and tradition is tremendous and all-pervading – it reaches even to the sidewalks. As students (“Aggies”) pass by each other, more often than not, they’re likely to greet random strangers with a friendly “Howdy!”

Admittedly, it’s more than a little annoying sometimes, and it walks the fine line between nauseatingly stereotypical and endearingly Texan.

What it shows, though, is that Aggies are willing, eager and ready to recognize that the random stranger next to them is not really random and not really a stranger – they share a bond and a connection even if they’ve never met before: they are both Aggies. They go to the same school and live on the same campus, and more importantly, they’re both members of an institution with tremendous culture, tradition, pride and a strong sense of identity.

We don’t see that here. It’s difficult for us to pull ourselves out of our lonely orbits for three seconds to acknowledge a fellow Northwestern community member, as if we’re afraid of recognizing that we have something in common. We’re reluctant to take a few moments from obsessing about our schedule to acknowledge that we share elements of identity, that (at the risk of sounding cheesy) we’re in this together.

These are noble ideals, you say, and I agree in principle – but it’s just so weird! What reason do I have to greet a total stranger with a quick smile and hello? Only freshmen do that, and even they learn to stop after the first couple of weeks.

We’re always complaining about the lack of community on campus. We’re always demanding the University or ASG do something about it – build a new student center, throw more A&O Balls (and throw more money at them while you’re at it) and have more community-building events, whatever those are.

It’s time to stop complaining and start trying to make a difference. Sound familiar? The destruction of the environment is a massive problem and can seem overwhelming and totally out of your control (it probably is). But you can still try to make a difference on an individual level simply by tossing a can in the recycling bin instead of the trash can. I feel a little better, karmically speaking, every time I recycle – and more importantly, it reminds me, even if just for a moment, of our collective and individual responsibility to help keep our world healthy.

If we want a greater sense of unity, it’s time to start acting like we’re all members of the same community. Say hi to a stranger today.

Aji Anith is a Weinberg sophomore.

He can be reached at [email protected]