July 18, 2010

Freedom, Finally: Don’t Freak Out

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A little over a year ago, I gave a commencement speech to my fellow graduating high school seniors about change — the mysterious force that we’ve been bred to simultaneously fear and crave ever so desperately. I stood pompously at the podium, urging my classmates to conquer their fears, step out of their comfort zones, and take full advantage of the blank slate before them. Yet despite my sermon on self-discovery and radical transformations, I had little desire to abandon the person I had become over the past 18 years of my life for a new “me” I had yet to meet.

When I came to Cornell, I realized change wasn’t quite mandated the way I expected. Though freshman year was certainly experimental in every way possible, the full-fledged mind and body makeovers I previously associated with the college experience were a rarity. Rather, it seemed that most freshman — myself especially — sought to maintain some sort of balance between change and stability. What that ideal ratio is remains a mystery to me.

But I wondered: What is it about college that sparks change anyway? Within a few weeks of total autonomy and lawlessness, I discovered the answer to my own question: freedom — unprecedented freedom. It wasn’t so much change that most freshman yearned for, but rather the insatiable sense of freedom and independence. It is the freedom to think, act, eat, drink, breathe and just be in any which way one desired that had college-bound seniors around the country counting down the days till freshman orientation. Yet having fallen flat on my face both literally and figuratively numerous times this past year, I can say firsthand that freedom — like anything in excess — can quickly cross the line from blessing to burden.

Looking back upon freshman year, I like to think of myself as ever-so-slightly wiser now. I’ve overcome both my fears and expectations for change, and have abandoned a previous foolish desire of mine to attempt to figure out who I am and what I want to do with my life before age 20, and have instead, happily settled for uncertainty. Furthermore, I’ve attempted to curb my lust for “innocent delinquency” (my preferred term for reckless partying), as I can sadly no longer use the excuse, “I’m just a freshman” to get out of trouble. Alternatively, I’ve come to recognize to some degree the inevitable accountability-factor deeply embedded at the core of all freedoms.

Interestingly, it was ultimately The Cornell Daily Sun that enlightened me with the fundamental freedom-and-responsibility-balancing-act demanded by the college experience. In high school, I was an editor for my school paper, The Bolt, and I was sad to leave it and my fellow news-aficionados behind. When I showed up in Ithaca, New York, slightly overwhelmed by the massive campus and the 13,000 undergraduate students, the majority of whom seemed to be sporting “Ithaca is GORGES” t-shirts, I was determined to find my place and make my mark in a seemingly infinite maze of charismatic young people.

Serendipitously, after being on Cornell’s campus less than a week, a friend of a friend informed me of an informational newspaper meeting. I jumped at the opportunity, and after wandering aimlessly around campus until I found the correct building, I made it there just in time to write my name down on a loose-leaf piece of notebook paper with the title “Opinion … Interested?” at the top.

Far sooner than I anticipated, I was given my first assignment for The Sun, and I was freaking out. I was no longer writing for some high school newspaper that created their own deadlines; I was writing for The Cornell Daily Sun — the oldest independent college daily in the country. And guess what I was writing about? The drinking age.

Having been on campus no more than three weeks, I had yet to form particularly strong opinions about alcohol on campus … well, other than my own, personal encounters with the substance that I clearly was not about to share with President Skorton. Despite my initial anxiety attack, I managed to piece some words together detailing how preposterous it was that one had to be 21 years of age to have a Budlight in this country — a truly shocking revelation from a barely 18 year old girl. When my article came out a few days later and I saw my Times New Roman 12-point-font byline that seemed to spell out F-R-E-S-H-M-A-N instead of my own name, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is pretty cool … and scary.”

Unlike The Bolt, The Sun is independent of the administration, meaning we can write about whatever we want however we want, and are not held accountable by the University. This includes everything from sex columns to anonymous articles detailing illegal drug use on campus. Yet as a rookie columnist, I quickly realized the consequences — both good and bad — of such extensive freedom. My legitimacy both as a writer and as a member of the Cornell community was determined by the authenticity of my writings. In other words, I was free to criticize whomever and whatever I desired, but was inextricably bound by the reasons and evidence I provided.

Since experiencing firsthand the ramifications of such self-rule on The Sun, I have applied these same rules about freedom and accountability to other aspects of my life. Though I continue to struggle with the precise ratio of independence and self-constraint I need to stay afloat, I am secretly content with not knowing — for now anyway.

This column was first published in The Sun’s 2009 Freshman Issue.

Carolyn Witte is a rising junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at cwitte@cornellsun.com. Wit’s End appeared alternate Tuesdays last semester and will continue in the Fall.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte