Dear New Athenas and Stags:

As the cost of college continues to rise, especially here at CMC, you will probably hear more and more about the idea of college students as customers. Someone, maybe your mom, or your uncle, or even your professor, will remind you that you (or someone else on your behalf) are paying an extraordinary sum of money so that you can attend this institution and that you should make sure to get everything out of it. I’m not here to dispute that advice, but I do want to discuss the process of how that happens.

When I hear students describe their experiences at CMC, it often sounds like they are describing a customer and a corporation, or a client and a consultant team. And sure, CMC’s endowment may be the size of a small Caribbean nation’s GDP, but it still makes me uncomfortable that students view this as a purely transactional relationship. We are not customers at a restaurant who ask for something from a waiter and expect them to run and fulfill our request.

I should note, however, that there are definitely ways in which CMC also promotes this idea of students as customers. The administration heavily pushes the value of a CMC degree and the idea that students are essentially paying for a certain level of future earnings potential. The Center for Student Opportunity, the incredible dining halls, Roberts Pavilion, and our newly renovated dorms are all services that the school markets as resources that students are paying for, and in some way they are. But the manner in which CMC messages these to prospective students and parents influences them to view the college as more of a provider of goods than as an academic institution and community. And that is how you get students who expect their professors and deans to give in to their every whim and desire. We are never shown or told how we can play a role in adapting CMC’s resources to be more equitable and effective, and the expectation that students engage with the institution has slowly been whittled away.

Regardless, I still encourage you to view your role as that of a citizen in this quasi-society that you have entered. Your classmates, faculty, and administrators will, of course, shape your experience at CMC, but the manner in which you engage with this community will also play a large role in that process. Sure, you can spend your time here just complaining to various people about every flaw you see, and that may spur some change (depending on who you are complaining to). But for the most part, it will leave the problems unsolved and not allow you to learn anything about why and how the issues you observe come about and continue to exist. As a CMCer, you have not only a voice, but a hand in how the institution functions. Using your role effectively requires a level of understanding as to why problems arise and what can be done to solve them, and this process does not occur without serious intentionality.

CMC is by no means a perfect place, and I think we owe it to ourselves and to those around us to try and improve it bit by bit with every action we take. And there’s no single route by which you can do this. You can go to Senate, listen to your classmates’ perspectives, and spur conversation on an issue you care about. You can meet with a Dean during their office hours to propose a method that you think could increase transparency between the administration and the students. Maybe you start a new club, maybe you organize a protest march, maybe you submit an op-ed to the Forum. There are so many avenues through which you can initiate change, and you cannot let feelings of helplessness overcome you. You will not always be successful, and it will rarely be easy, but it is always worthwhile to express your sincere commitment to a cause that you are passionate about.

As Dr. James Peterson mentioned during his talk here, what really matters is your intention when you engage with something. This isn’t high school, where most of us started a couple clubs, threw them on our resumes, and called it a day. If you join a research institute or SSPEAR or the Student Investment Fund just because you think it will help you get an internship, that’s simply not enough. Not to say that career opportunities should not be a concurrent benefit, because they certainly can be. But your engagement becomes so much stronger when you reflect on how you can use your interests and activities as means for change. Take whatever research you’re working on and discuss it with friends through the CMC framework; think of CMC conduct policies as you’re reading about criminal justice reform or discuss how better work-life balance and schedules can improve mental and emotional health here. Use the institutional knowledge you’ve gained at SIF to bring up questions or concerns you have surrounding the CMC endowment. Your experiences here will certainly prepare you for life after CMC, but they should do so for all facets of life, including your civic engagement.

Some people may argue that your role here is solely that of a degree/job-seeking student and that you should not have to worry about this sort of thing. And truly, your classwork is and should always be a priority; never again will you have four years at a school like CMC to explore your academic interests in such an enriching fashion. But at the same time, I strongly believe that your education will be woefully incomplete if it does not extend beyond the classroom and into the community around you. At a school that claims as part of its mission statement to “promote responsible citizenship,” I would view it as a failure if our alumni simply do their jobs and do not engage and work to improve their communities. And if CMCers are not willing to put in that effort here, why should anyone believe that we will do so once we leave Claremont?

Lastly, I want to mention how you can shape not just the institutional characteristics of CMC, but also the interpersonal relationships you form here. When you have a conflict with your roommate, don’t run to DOS to request a room transfer. When you see someone carrying glass around precariously, and it makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to say something. You have the ability (and I would argue, responsibility) to at least face these situations head on and to do what you can to alleviate them. Obviously there will be times when you are simply over capacity and not willing to go through this occasionally contentious process, and that is totally fine; self-care is super important. But if you find yourself constantly avoiding these situations, remind yourself that you and everyone else here is a capable and valued member of this community and approach your interactions with that in mind. CMC will be a better place because of it, and you may even find that you now have one less thing to complain about.


P.S.  Also, go to the Ath more. You won’t regret it.