Burg: Engagement stipend shouldn’t just perpetuate ‘culture of busy’

Madeline Burg, Columnist

Last Friday North By Northwestern published a piece by Aileen McGraw titled “The inequality of busy,” a meditation on the new Student Engagement Stipend program created by Associated Student Government in collaboration with student group leaders and the Center for Student Involvement. McGraw cheers the stipend, explaining that the “careerist culture” we have here at Northwestern is not only abnormal but it’s prohibitive to many students who can’t afford the money or the time one would need to climb to a leadership position in most student groups. The stipend is just the fist step to level the playing field for these students who work multiple jobs but would still like to be engaged on campus.

Regarding McGraw’s discussion of how the financial landscape looks for many of us at NU and how it shapes our campus experiences, I completely agree with what she’s saying. It’s real that people work several jobs to be here at all, and that other people look down on this use of time because it’s not the right kind of busy, which is not good. Not only have we created this culture of cramming each spare minute not spent in class with other obligations, some obligations are “right” and some are “wrong,” and the “right” ones are not available to everyone because of inequalities in economic capital.

So why perpetuate this distortion of the concept of campus engagement at all? I have qualms that are mostly based on feeling inadequately un-busy but this is kind of my point. On leaving high school, I was looking forward to not having to elbow my way through National Honor Society, club lacrosse, symphony orchestra, musical theater and piano lessons — doesn’t that sad string of extracurriculars look ridiculous? I had heard NU had an astoundingly large number of student groups and I was excited at the prospect of having options, but it wasn’t long after I arrived as a freshman already exhausted from my previous resume fillers that I realized that these “options” were just a fresh batch of guilt-inducing stressors that I’d have to take on in addition to my schoolwork and work study job if I wanted to be “Northwestern busy.”

I think I’m in the minority in really and truly not wanting to be that busy. Taking a full course load, doing a work study job in the English department office and writing for The Daily, with a few stints working in a limited capacity on a handful of student theater productions, is enough for me. And if your obligations far exceed my own bare bones list, and if you like that about your life, then that’s cool too. The point is that both of these should be okay, and I feel that our campus engagement culture doesn’t quite allow for that.

Engagement is a great thing. It can help you find your passions, it can help you prepare socially and practically for your life after college and it can help others. But so often I find that people are piling on extracurriculars in the name of our careerist culture and not in the name of actual desire to do that extracurricular. Not only is our campus engagement too rooted in financial security, but our view of what being “busy” on campus means is skewed. I think it’s not in our best interest to perpetuate this view, and I think that commending the initiation of the Student Engagement Stipend for making it possible for more students to engage in our “culture of busy” is slightly detrimental.

I don’t dislike the idea of the stipend. I think a lot of people deserve to be compensated for the time they spend on non-academic activities – a roommate of mine devotes so much time to the Waa-Mu Show that in the coming months she should probably just set up a cot in the basement of Cahn Auditorium. Activities like this enhance a student’s time at college by providing a non-academic arena to get practical experience in their chosen field and to do the thing that they love. That is what I think the stipend should be for, and I just hope that the vetting procedures for the stipend applications are thorough and discerning.

But if you look at it in a maybe overly basic way, now there’s an incentive for perpetuating our “abnormal” culture of busy. No one should feel actively excluded from campus culture, whether it’s because they can’t afford it or because they just don’t always want to be a part of it. Maybe we can’t overthrow our busyness entirely, but in the meantime, don’t look down on people who can’t or don’t want to be as engaged as you are. Stop the cycle. Go about your respective businesses. I’ll be watching “Friends.”

Madeline Burg is a Weinberg senior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].