December 1, 2013

OH: Thanksgiving in Ithaca: Stranded and Starved

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While the majority of Cornell students will spend this week reorienting to academic work after few days of turkey feasts and black Friday shopping, some of the student body will be recuperating from 96 hours of hunger and isolation. Spending 96 hours — or four days — in desolate Ithaca may not be as traumatic as getting trapped in Blue John Canyon for 127 hours, but it can be nonetheless deflating.

One might argue that choosing to stay here over Thanksgiving Break is a self-inflicted harm. It should be a common knowledge that Ithaca winters are consistently cold and gloomy. So, why would anyone volunteer to spend any more time than necessary lingering in this dark, lonely place? Because sometimes, it isn’t necessarily a choice.

Around 60 percent of Cornell students hail from New England and the Mid-Atlantic with half of them coming from within New York. These students’ permanent homes are within a 500 mile radius from campus, a one-hour direct flight or a less than six hour drive away. The proximity of home enables these students to visit families over a regular two day weekend, if desired, and a five day thanksgiving weekend is more than plentiful.

For Midwesterners at Cornell, the distance away from families is within a 500-1000 mile range. In the grand scheme of things, 500 miles isn’t even so far to travel for a five day weekend. One must remember, however, that students from the Midwest make up a mere 7 percent of Cornell’s undergraduate body (far less than international students who make up 11 percent of the undergraduate body). As a Michigander myself, I have always had a hard time finding any shared ride back to the Midwest.

Then we have students from the West and the South. For these students, their homes are far enough away that driving home for a five day weekend is not a viable option. Our free market economy works wonderfully during this time of the year, spiking the price of airline tickets to twice or three times the price of a regular fare. Unlike lengthier and more variable winter breaks, the Thanksgiving holiday is extremely short and universal throughout the country. Its constant demand fixes airfares at exorbitant levels, no matter how far in advance you book tickets.  Despite varying degrees of distance and difficulty we have to endure to reach our destinations, the single decisive factor that determines our whereabouts over Thanksgiving break is not our hometown, but our family income.

For a large number of Cornell students, flying home to California, Florida, or Texas doesn’t require much hassle on their part. Their parents notify them of their itinerary and all they have to do is pack up and grab a cab to the airport. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprise if some students flew across the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean over break. But for other students, flying is simply too expensive. With our humble, frugal upbringings, spending hundreds of dollars to spend only a couple of days at home doesn’t seem economically sound.

Cornell’s is ranked 9th Best Value School in the country and its generous financial aid policies even award grants to students whose parents incomes are in the six figures. But unfortunately, every break, especially Thanksgiving and Spring Breaks, painfully reminds lower income students what type of school Cornell really is. Break after break, the University painfully reminds us which group of students it primarily caters to: The rich who can afford to leave campus over break. All the buffet-style dining halls close at the hour of break’s start and don’t seem to reopen until the dinner before classes resume. A la carte cafes are just as exclusive, except for Nasties — but sorry, I’m not walking all the way to North just to get some mediocre sandwich.

Every year, Cornell’s International Students and Scholars Office hosts Thanksgiving dinner at RPCC. Hundreds of students and families partake in this feast every year and tickets usually get sold out in advance. When there’s a clear demand, I don’t understand why Cornell can’t keep one dining hall in operation over break, even for just one meal a day. With dining halls closed and no TCAT service on Thanksgiving, left behind students persevere on junk food from vending machines.

Yale and Stanford give students the entire week off, allowing every student to travel during a nine day period. Dartmouth’s new quarter system assigned finals prior to thanksgiving, giving students an extensive Thanksgiving-Christmas winter vacation. Penn and Columbia have only Thursday and Friday off, which seems harsh, but their urban settings provide convenient access to major transit centers as well as plenty of local vendors and shops for remaining students.

If Cornell is really “open” to students of all backgrounds, the administration ought to reconsider the length of Thanksgiving recess, and at the very least, keep some dining halls “open” over these shorter breaks.