There’s nothing that compares to ending my week celebrating Shabbat with friends at Cornell Hillel. It’s a place where I’ve felt valued and welcomed since I first stepped through the door my freshman year. It’s a place where I can be myself — my true self.
But my three years at Cornell University have taught me that most college students lack this type of supportive community, one where they can express themselves openly without fear of judgment.
More than 60 percent of college students report feeling “very lonely,” according to the American College Health Association. From the brutally competitive nature of today’s college admissions process to the debilitating influence of social media, the pressure students feel to appear “perfect” is now greater than ever.
But do students dare tell their peers about their internal struggles? Not usually. They can’t risk being seen as weak.
So they put on a front, masking their stress and sadness behind their meticulously crafted social media personas — altered images of themselves. Their “happy” photos may get a lot of likes on Instagram and Facebook, but the “me” they’re broadcasting to the world isn’t an accurate representation of how they’re feeling. And no number of “likes” can change that.
This phenomenon has many names: at the University of Pennsylvania, it’s “Penn Face;” at Stanford University, it’s “Duck Syndrome;” at Tulane University, it’s “The Undertow.” Students across the country have created school-specific names to describe the pressures they feel to hide their struggles. That’s a heavy burden to bear, and they shouldn’t have to do it alone.
Because I experienced the benefit of a supportive community through activities such as Shabbat at Cornell Hillel, I decided to bring an organization to campus to help students better their mental health.
I learned about The Reflect Organization (“Reflect”), created by University of Pennsylvania alumnus Jared Fenton in 2015. The nonprofit aims to destigmatize student care for mental health by providing them with a safe forum to engage in open and honest discussions. With the help of Jack Burger, a student in the Dyson School of Business, we began a student-run chapter on our campus.
Since September 2017, Cornell Reflect has brought hundreds of students to monthly dinners where they’re encouraged to speak openly about stress, body image, relationships and any other topics on their minds. They engage in small group discussions, moderated by trained students. There now are more than 75 student moderators on Cornell’s campus, all of whom have received formal training from mental health professionals.
We’ve intentionally destigmatized the environment to show them that it’s not only accepted, but also cool to be yourself.
Students have opened up about their personal lives at our dinners. They’ve even exchanged contact information and have made plans to meet up outside Cornell Reflect to connect in an open and mutually supportive way. We’re constantly receiving positive feedback from students, including a participant who said: “I feel so much better knowing I’m not alone.”
Through Cornell Reflect, we’ve seen the fostering of connections and the breaking down of walls. We’ve created a space where students feel embraced by their peers, emboldened to share their true feelings and be their unfiltered selves, even amongst strangers. We’ve given students a newfound sense of purpose.
This is the cultural shift Cornell Reflect strives to bring about. And these students are part of the movement to the change our campus culture.
The Reflect Organization (“Reflect”) has chapters at University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, Barnard College, Columbia University, La Salle University and Queens College. For more information, email Jared Fenton at [email protected] or visit www.reflecteffect.org.
Maddie Feldman is a junior at Cornell University.