May 6, 2004

Despite Itself, Cornell Is the Best

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I had a thought last week as I sat in the sun on the Arts Quad. This is why Cornell is great.

There have been other thoughts like that over the past couple weeks, when I walked home from the bars in a soft, seventy-degree breeze last Saturday night, when I went on a run in the plantations a couple weeks ago, when I saw the trees budding on my way to class Monday morning.

And while it might be easy to see the beauty of Cornell in the sun, it can be just as easy to get down on Cornell after two weeks of solid clouds, when it is forty degrees and raining in February, and it seems like spring will never come. On those days, I think everyone wonders what it might have been like to go to Stanford or UCLA. But I also think those cloudy days make the sunny ones that much better. Tell me if there is anyplace else you have appreciated the sun as much as you do at Cornell. I doubt it.

But, sitting in the middle of the Arts Quad in the sun, it was about more than just the weather.

Writing this column over the last eight months, I spent a lot of time thinking about Cornell, about what the students here thought about, about what they wanted to hear. In the beginning, I had no clue of what I would write about or what the subject of Long Distance Runner would be. I just knew it was a column, and I had to fill up the newspaper space. But somewhere along the line, unbeknownst to me, a thread emerged in my writings. They ended up being about Cornell, what it is like to live here, go to school here, and compete here.

At the start of fall semester, I was a little bit down on Cornell. It always seemed to be second place, second best, in academics, in athletics, in spirit, in the students’ minds. For a while I wondered why I went here, why I never applied to some place better or why I had not just thrown caution to the wind, gone to UC Boulder, and taken up partying and skiing on a full-time basis.

I only started to realize the answer to that question after I had a little bit of perspective. Fall semester I did some traveling; I spent some time partying at Ohio State and found a reason to spend a few weeks at Harvard. I can definitely say that each was very different, from each other and from Cornell.

At Ohio State I found a group of kids who liked to start drinking sometime between early morning and mid-afternoon on Saturdays. They worshipped their football team as if it were a deity and partied as if it were their only obligation in life. I had fun with them, even if I don’t remember part of the weekend, and had to spend my last night there agonizing over the Buckeye’s defeat to Wisconsin. No matter what happened, they knew how to have a good time.

Harvard presented me with a group of almost universally incredible students who seemed to be infected with a pathological need to overachieve. An astounding number of the conversations I had there involved the sentence, “Well, I’m not required to do a thesis, but I really feel like I have to.” They were certainly smart, inquisitive, but at the same time, I questioned a bit of their reasoning: Kids, you really have to breathe, or eat, or keep yourself warm; I question whether or not anyone has to do a non-required thesis. I’ll take the ability to say, conscience free, “I’d rather chew off my arm than write a thesis.” Even more enlightening than my thesis conversations at Harvard was a talk I had with some guys who had just visited Cornell. “The parties there were awesome!” said one. “Yeah man, there were some really hot girls at the place we went.” It was a refreshing thing to hear after three and a half years of institutional inferiority.

That was when I started seeing past the U.S. News rankings that were always and unfortunately rolling around in the back of my head. That was when I began realizing why I liked Cornell. I always knew why, I guess, in a way, although perhaps it was one of those things I had never fully internalized.

I came here because I wanted a big school with good academics, and that is exactly what Cornell gave me. I got huge fraternity parties, a course-book bigger than my hometown phone book, and more writing, thinking, and reading than I could ever imagine. I got something between Harvard and Ohio State, something a bit crazier than anything you will find in Cambridge and a bit tougher, a bit more competitive, than anything you can find in Columbus. And while Cornell is not all of one thing or the other, that is what I am here for, and that is why I love it. I love how great Ithaca is on a nice day, and I love that Cornell gave me a reason to learn hockey, a chance to compete with some of the hardest core kids in the world in my time on the lightweight crew team, and a chance to talk to a whole host of dedicated and interesting athletes. Cornell taught me how to be a student and gave me dozens of opportunities I never would have had otherwise.

As a student, an athlete, a reporter, and a kid, Cornell has given me a lot. I will always remember flying down the last 750 at Eastern Sprints freshman year. We busted our asses to make our boat go fast that year, and despite more work than some of us could comprehend, we lost every single race in the regular season.

By the time Sprints rolled around at the end of the season, we were mad, mad that we had lost, mad that things had not gone right. We jumped out to a lead in the first thousand, but Dartmouth, our biggest competition, walked back up on us, pulling their way to a three-seat lead at the half-way point of the two-thousand meter race. In the last 750, we fought back, hard, for the first time all year. I asked the boat for a move and it gave me a move, clawing its way even in ten strokes and holding there. And at that point, heading for the last five-hundred of the race, I really think it became about who wanted it more. I looked over at Dartmouth and yelled, “I can see them right next to us! They’re looking at us! I don’t want ’em to look at us anymore! I want you to put them down; kill them, make them bleed!” In the last 500 of that race we answered everything they threw at us. The finish was too close for me to tell who was first, but after a few seemingly interminable minutes the announcement came; we won by .05 seconds.

Nothing was ever quite so intense, but I had similar moments of triumph after that, as I watched any number of hockey games at the Lynah, got As (however rarely) on papers, silently rooted for the men’ s basketball team from behind the press table against Georgia Tech, and had bitchin’ and ever-so-wonderfully intoxicated nights at the bars. Those moments, along with all the sunny afternoons, classes I took, and kids I met, are the reasons I love Cornell.

And you should too, because there’s so much here to love, no matter who you are or what you do. If you are cursed with some Ivy-League inferiority complex, get it out of your head. If you are bitter about not getting into some other college, let it go. And if you are still convinced that Harvard, Yale, Princeton are better for whatever reason, if you still don’t like it here and you never will, get out. Go ruin someone else’s party. Despite the icy winters, sometimes endless overcast, and occasionally lacking school spirit, I am pretty convinced I have found one of the sweetest schools ever, even if I didn’t always realize it.

I would like to thank the people who made that possible: my parents, for giving me the ability to go here and major in something that will likely never make me much money, the boys at DTD for making my life so much more interesting these past three years, and the guys on the lightweight crew team for dealing with all my bad calls and near crashes.

Thank you to Linda Muri for showing me how to compete at the college level, and thank you to Barry Maxwell for showing me how to think at the college level. Thank you also, to all of my writing teachers, particularly Lydia Fakundiny, for forcing me to make myself better, and just as importantly, thank you to all the Sun sports editors who dealt with all my late articles and let me publish this drivel.

Finally, a huge thanks
to Lennie and Bill for backing me up from day one at Cornell. Thanks to Viele for all those beers, and thank you to Katy B. for giving me a reason to go to Harvard. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, props to William for financing all those trips to the bars, telling me when I was being stupid, and being a pretty awesome friend.

As I sat in the sun on the Arts Quad contemplating how great Cornell was, these were the people and the experiences I was really thinking about, even if I didn’t know it at the time. And, while you and I don’t necessarily share these people or these experiences, we do share this place, this Sun, this school. I hope you can see how great it is.

Matt James is a Sun Senior Writer.Long Distance Runnerhas appeared every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Matt James