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Club selectivity – A Rat Race

By Shivani Deshmukh (UG22)

At university, we’re sold the idea of fresh, new opportunities, and a clean slate to try whatever we want. This is especially true for liberal arts universities, where the idea of a clean slate to experiment is highly idealised. While this is the ideal portrayed on brochures and websites, the reality is that at self-proclaimed ~elite~ universities such as ours, rarely, if ever, does anyone get to try a new skill or explore an activity that they haven’t before. The discouraging truth is that you’re often expected to be predisposed towards a skill, even if you just want to try it out.

Through a rigorous induction process that most college clubs and societies employ, they assess not only how dedicated you are, but also if you’re good enough to be inducted. In a lot of cases, your potential isn’t what is assessed; but your past experiences and, in a way, your worth. The induction process in the most privy societies consists of filling out lengthy forms, previously demonstrated experience, a portfolio, an interview, and an ideas inventory. All of this to be a part of a club.

So, in other terms, it’s a job.

Except college clubs aren’t supposed to be jobs. For most people, college clubs are a fun hobby, something to take our minds off of taxing academics, or simply a place to meet people who share your interests and make friends. (At least that’s what all of the articles on ‘Top Ten Ways to Make Friends in College!’ will tell you). Most importantly, college clubs and societies are a gateway to trying something new and exciting – finding a hobby, (the articles will tell you that that is important, too) and dabbling in anything that doesn’t constantly require research, citations and critical thinking – unless, well, that’s what you’re into.

If not only for the purpose of being fun, college clubs have the capacity to introduce students to a skill, a hobby, a talent that they may never had the privilege of trying out before. Some clubs are more ‘serious’ in their work than other clubs – in this case clubs that strive for community engagement, social and environmental welfare. Here, even if the objective of a club isn’t to have fun, what exactly is the point of them being so selective? For fun or not, college clubs are not supposed to be as stressful in their applications as they are.

I will admit that several clubs and societies on campus are purely recreational, have no strict entry bar, and entirely hobby-based, that evade my argument. Even in this semester, we witnessed the invention of many niche clubs like Sckuro, (Graphic narrative club) La Lumiere (French club) and Hallyu (Korean Culture Club) among others. Other, older clubs, like Farmfresh, (gardening club) Shabd (reading club) and Siyahi (art society) remain pretty lax in the entry requirements, with many of their meetings being open to all. But some clubs, be it magazines or social work, tend to remain relatively exclusive, admitting only a fraction of the students who apply, and this exclusivity can become its mark of prestige.

The most important factor that selective clubs overlook is that selectivity, in itself, is a function of elitism. When clubs and societies choose among the applicants to gauge who, among all the other students is the best equipped, (in other words, the most talented and/or experienced) they offer students an equal opportunity, but not equity. What this implies is that clubs and societies branded for their exclusivity assume that in their past, all students have been exposed to equal opportunities, and have had the same amount of money, time and support to hone their skills. It is unreasonable to require a university student to have experience and predisposed knowledge, experience or adeptness at a certain activity. Considering the various socio-economic backgrounds everyone hails from, not many have had exposure to debate, photography, dance, music, environmental activism, volunteering, writing, and other activities that require one to have resources and practice. By cherry-picking the ‘best’ students, exclusive clubs and societies advantage the already advantaged and also take away opportunities from people who may simply want to learn something new, or just have fun.

Most of the people applying to clubs and societies are freshers, who are, by virtue of being freshers, are hyper aware of their place in a competitive university. To have to go through several rounds of inductions (or even just one intense round) for clubs and societies, only to be rejected from the coveted ones (often coveted mainly for their exclusivity, mind you) is extremely demoralising. It does so much to add to the burden of feeling like an imposter, or just not good enough for even a college society. As if academics and extracurriculars weren’t overly competitive enough, the competition to get into an esteemed club does nothing to ease the anxiety that freshers face.

In some cases, selectivity might make sense. Competitive activities, like theatre and dance, that take place on an inter-something level would require one to be reasonably well disposed towards the activity in question. It is naïve of me to expect a club to allow just about anyone to participate in competitions without the confidence of them winning something for the club. Still, these are exceptions. Most clubs and societies don’t partake in competitive activities, and even if they do, they must accommodate people who are simply there to participate and learn, and not necessarily to compete. By limiting extracurriculars and hobbies to their winning-potential, all we are doing is restricting people, and demotivating them from even participating. College societies that are primarily focussed on competition hold a monopoly over the activities they are in charge of. This leaves no space for students who may simply want to do it as an offhand hobby, and not necessarily something they need to commit several hours to.

This is a hotly debated topic in many highly regarded colleges across the world. The Cornell Sun, the University paper for Cornell U, would agree that the process of applying and getting selected to clubs and societies is dauntingly similar to applying for a job, and needlessly so. It puts freshers in an uncomfortable position of being judged and ranked for a role that frankly, they may not even care about yet. Northwestern University, in a bid to recognise the inequity that students face while applying to clubs and societies, proposed to remove all barriers to enter into clubs and societies; a highly contentious suggestion. The Hoya of Georgetown U also discusses steps that the University has carried out to be more inclusive and the repercussions of selectivity.

There is no secret formula on how a college must be more equitable to all of its students in every way possible, but being selective in a college that’s already criticised for its elitist ‘merit-based’ selectivity misses the mark. While removing all barriers and allowing free entry may not be possible or sustainable, a less stringent application process and a recognition of the notion of selectivity being rooted in privilege and elitism would be a good start.

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