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Embracing the Cornell Experience: Three Themes

Rising sophomore KA writes to MetaEzra:

I'm a Cornell freshman.. or I suppose a "rising sophomore." I had an incredible first year filled with the traditional ups and downs that come with beginning your college years. I'm quite happy with my decision to attend Cornell. That said, I'm glad to take a break from Ithaca for these summer months and reflect on the year. I'm wondering: what "made" your years at Cornell? I'd like to become more involved on campus, but I'm not quite sure what I'd like to do. I simply want to embrace the Cornell experience as fully as possible.

The challenge, of course, is that there is no one quintessential Cornell experience; everybody's experience will be varied and unique. As I wrote way back when in The Muse:

Cornell does not make you. Just as the first students at Ezra’s university helped construct the buildings they studied in, you must make Cornell for yourself. It is for this reason that we cannot possibly understand this place until we have finished our own time at Cornell. There is no definitive Cornell experience — every experience here is unique and tailor-made by the individual student.

Now, I can't tell you to exactly mimic what made my Cornell experience so great -- but I can prescribe some broad themes that students might want to follow. I had a fantastic professor sophomore year who once told me that any list of two items can certainly be expanded to three. And any list of four items or more is far too lengthy, and can usually be boiled down to three. So in that spirit, what follows are three broad recommendations to current or future Cornell students.

1) Take academics seriously and surrender to your inner-nerd.

While some might claim that nobody remembers their academic experience at college, I beg to differ. Some of my dearest Cornell moments came from long discussions with professors, late-evening epiphanies on the solitary walk home from the Libe, or the random lecture I attended with a friend even though we only had a fleeting knowledge of the subject-matter.

Let's face it: every student is going to have fond memories of partying and an active social life in college, because, well, college parties tend to be a blast. But, at the same time, you're at Cornell, with all sorts of fascinating lectures and concerts and exhibits going on, not to mention one of the world's best libraries. So it might make sense to decrease the partying a bit (and disconnect yourself from social media while you're at it) and increase your intellectual pursuits by a consummate amount.

So do research for a professor. Or pick up a book you've heard about. Learn how to program a random computer language. Write poetry. If you're an English major, attend random lectures on evolutionary biology. And likewise for pre-meds. Because five or fifty years out the parties will be remembered by all, but only some of us will have those engaging five-hour conversations about the existence of a supernatural being.

That way, when you're back on campus as an alum, you won't feel shy chatting up your professor about their work. And you'll have achieved more with your Cornell degree than Andy Bernard.

2) Get involved in a cross-section of student activities that reflects the diversity of your interests and the diversity of Cornellians; especially those activities that can connect you to Cornell history and Cornell alumni.

Most students already know what they would like to do outside of the classroom when they set foot on campus. Some want to write for the Sun, others want to become sorority president. Athletic types are in a varsity or club sport, while the bookish types join the literary magazines.

But whatever you do, don't pigeon hole yourself into only one type of extracurricular activity. Engage with groups that will nourish you both physically and socially, emotionally and intellectually. And make certain to get yourself a bit out of your comfort zone to interact with the diversity that makes Cornell so infamous.

Most of your close friends will come not from your freshman dorms, but from your extra-curricular activities. And they will not only support you through your undergraduate trials and tribulations, but also be there for so many important events post-graduation as well. The friendships I made at Cornell are the strongest I will ever make.

Besides reading the Sun everyday (which is pretty much taken as a given), one of the easiest (and best) activities to get involved with is to become a member of the Lynah Faithful and get season tickets for the hockey games. You'll be inducted into a multi-generational lineage of rabid Cornellians, learn the Alma Mater, and understand why the year 1970 means so much to this school. Just be sure to show up on time. The other easy thing to do is to attend the concerts of the Glee Club: nothing like a rousing rendition of the 'The Hill' to inspire contemporaneous nostalgia.

Some of the best extra-curriculars, in my opinion, are the types that can connect you with the broader Cornell community, allowing you to learn more about Cornell's unique history and meet its legions of dynamic, interesting alumni. At the same time, you'll probably get to interact with new students and prefrosh.

The good news is that many types of student groups fit this mold -- from the Glee Club to the engineering robotics competitions, Hotel Ezra Cornell to the campus tour guides to the chimes masters to the Greek System. Be sure to reach out to alumni to see what they may have to offer to you, and in turn, lend a helping hand to students younger than you. We're all in Ithaca together. Which brings me to my third point:

3) Make Ithaca your home for four years.

Too many students treat their Cornell experience as a sleep-away camp of sorts, never leaving campus to explore Ithaca or her surrounding environs. I just met a fellow alum at our 5th year reunion who didn't even know that Ithaca had a Farmer's Market!

From the beginning of your time at Cornell, take some time to explore Ithaca -- go for a walk in the Plantations or spend a night out on The Commons. Bike to Taughannock Falls or volunteer at Belle-Sheman elementary school. Read the Ithaca Journal and follow some local news and events that are taking place off of campus. You'll soon discover all of the fantastic amenities that Ithaca has to offer, the same features that brings legions of alums back for summer vacations and winter-weekend escapes every year.

I know I said at the beginning that there is no one quintessential experience that every Cornellian should have, but if there is one, it would be spending a summer in Ithaca. You will start to see Ithaca (and Cornell!) in a different light over the long summer evenings spent lingering over beers and barbecue on a friend's porch, or the lazy afternoons you spend napping on the Arts Quad in lieu of hitting the books in Olin. Hell, you'll probably enjoy your summer in Ithaca so much that you will stay in Ithaca for a couple of weeks over winter break, much like I did, spending your days snowshoeing and retiring to drawn-out evenings of red wine and Trivial Pursuit.

But once you start calling Ithaca home, you'll find yourself eager to start learning, playing, and investing in your newly adopted community -- starting to make the best of everything that's around. And the sooner Ithaca becomes your new home, the better. It will reinforce your on-campus relationships and expand your off-campus horizons. And then after your commencement weekend, you'll find yourself lingering around Ithaca for a couple of weeks, just to say a rightful goodbye to such a darling little city. And that will make your Cornell experience for the best.

(That and reading Carl Becker's essay on the Cornell tradition of Freedom and Responsibility.)

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on June 20, 2010 (#)

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