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Ithaca Is Gorges. But, Is Cornell Deadly?

No school needed a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament more than Cornell. Prior to this weekend, its Ithaca, New York,...


No school needed
a trip to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament more than Cornell. Prior to this weekend, its Ithaca, New York, campus was gripped by the aftermath of the deaths of three undergraduates in the past month-all of which are possible suicides-in which the students fell into one of the town's gorges. There have been seven other deaths of Cornell students this year. The death toll is now at 10, and it's not even April-at least six of which are suspected suicides.

As Gawker points out, Cornell's reputation as a "suicide school" may stick because of the spectacular nature of the deaths-jumping into a gorge turns more heads than pills and even gunshots these days. I went to Cornell from 1998 to 2002. Ithaca is definitely not my favorite place in the world, and I've wasted a lot of time thinking about other schools that would have been a better fit. (I'll be the first to admit, however, that I wasn't mature or assertive enough to take full advantage of what the school had to offer.)

This recent rash of suicides has me wondering if there aren't aspects about the university that make its students particularly vulnerable to these sorts of tragedies.

Weather: I remember when my family and I visited Cornell, in the summer of 1997. Of course it was beautiful, as advertised: hilly, and lush, and picturesque. But that was an anomaly. And those same qualities that make Cornell stunning on the infrequent sunny days make it less than hospitable when it's gray and especially when it's snowing. Trudging up Library Slope to get to class on a January day isn't anyone's idea of fun. I swear, one year, it snowed in May. In May!

Social life: Among undergrads, the social scene is dominated by the Greek system-the second largest in the country. For those who decide not to join a fraternity and sorority, you have to be proactive to find yourself a vibrant social scene. And because the campus is poorly planned and extremely spread out (both latitude and longitudinally, as well as topographically), it isn't hard to feel isolated. If you can't find your niche on campus, well, there's not a whole lot more of Ithaca for you to find yourself-I remember making several four-hour drives to New York City or Philly to see various bands and soak up some urban life.

Private vs. public: Cornell is made up of both public colleges and private colleges. Thanks to land grants from New York State, three are technically part of SUNY (Agriculture, Human Ecology, and Industrial and Labor Relations), with different admission standards, lower tuition, and a student body made up of more New Yorkers. But, regardless of what you had to do to get in-and what you have to do to get out-everyone gets the same degree. And, that's definitely a cause of some tension on campus.

"Safety school": Cornell is an impressively well-rounded school, from the humanities (which other Ivy League schools also excel in) to an engineering school that's probably the top of Ancient Eight. But Cornell's students and its administration seem to have a chip on its shoulder about its reputation-as if Princteon, Yale, and Harvard fans chanting "safety school" at sporting events managed to psyche everyone on campus out. A lot of my classmates would try to compare facets of Cornell to facets of, say, Harvard. The big stat to drop when I was there was that upwards of 90 percent of Harvard students graduate with honors; whereas only 8 percent of Cornell students earn that distinction. (A popular Cornell maxim: "The easiest Ivy to get into, the hardest to get out of.")

Hospitality: Cornell has one of the country's best hotel management schools, but overall it doesn't create the most hospitable environment. The food is pretty good (for cafeteria food), but there's little else in the way of coddling students. I remember when I found out that laundry at Princeton, for instance, is free to students. That little perk made me plenty jealous. Grade inflation rarely took place. (In fact, schools like Princeton have had to institute grade deflation guidelines to get the number of As down to the level that they are at Cornell.) Also inhospitable was the administration's crusade against Slope Day-the last day of spring semester classes when students would gather on Library Slope to celebrate. The tradition, which unsurprisingly was binge drinking-fueled madness (but still a totally necessary release)-was made progressively lamer each year that I was in school.

Of the three recent deaths, two of them were of engineering students. I remember that working until all hours of the night on my daily problem sets and my rigorous chemical engineering schedule stole a lot of the time that I could have spent partying, meeting new people, and making myself a happier, more well-rounded person. It might even be worth it for the university to focus some effort on that college specifically.

Cornell certainly isn't alone when it comes to noteworthy suicides, NYU has had its share of well-publicized tragedies, as have other schools. And while I do think the conditions at Cornell combine to create a particularly precarious situation for some students, perhaps all colleges could do a little more to make learning at a challenging university a little easier on students.

In the case of Cornell, I, for one, haven't felt more connected to the university than I did watching its basketball team take apart Wisconsin last night. A few more campus-galvanizing moments like this could be just what the school's Mental Health Initiatives office ordered.

Photo (cc) by Flickr user foreverdigital.