When I was a freshman, every reputable national newspaper had a 40 year-old writing about how to “do college” correctly and effectively. And while crumbs of their advice were useful, I also felt like the prescriptions for how to act and perform were more stressful than anything else. There’s no one-size-fits-all way to be a student at Cornell, but if I could go back and give my freshman self some advice, it would pretty much go as follows:
Give everyone you meet at least three chances before you decide if you like them or not. For the first few days, the first few weeks — even the first whole semester — everyone is trying to figure things out, and it doesn’t hurt to just be a little patient. As freshmen, you are constantly making first impressions. There are the ones you are prepared for: the first time you meet your roommate, your professors, the people in your hall.
But besides that, you have no idea if the person you sit next to in the dining hall is going to be your best friend, an acquaintance, or another one of the hundreds of randoms that you’ll probably never talk to again. If you’re human, you’re not “on” all the time — sometimes you’re going to be a little quiet, tired and boring. Give yourself a break, but also cut other people some slack.
The girl who seems standoffish might be having a bad day, and the guy who is really extra about going out in Collegetown is probably just overcompensating. Try not to hastily decide that anybody you meet is any one thing: annoying, rude, snappy, boring. People that you would have never gravitated towards in high school are going to become your second family here, you just have to be open-minded and patient enough to find them and meet them in various contexts.
Go to office hours and raise your hand in class (if you have something to say). I hardly raised my hand first semester of freshman year; all of my classes felt so big and everything everyone said sounded so important. I thought that, if I didn’t have anything genius or novel to add, I shouldn’t raise my hand — even when there were questions I knew the answers to. This was, in retrospect, so stupid. You’re 18 (or 19, or whatever, you’re young, we’re all young). Even the smartest kids don’t have a constant stream of profound answers and contributions running through their head at all times. If you have something to say, raise your hand. Hell, get an answer wrong and feel dumb. But at least contribute. You did a lot of work to be here and to sit in these classes. Really be here, if that’s what you want. The longer you take to get in the habit of speaking up, the scarier it becomes. My advice would be to hit the ground running because that’s one thing I wish I had done.
Go to the Commons. If you’re a freshman, you have a free TCAT bus pass, so definitely take advantage of that when things on campus get redundant. Gimme Coffee and The Shop are both awesome coffee places to sit in and do work, especially if you feel like not being surrounded by Cornell people for five minutes. State Street Diner is nice, too. Hawi Ethiopian is by far my favorite restaurant in Ithaca, and Cinemapolis shows good movies in cozy theaters.
Unless you’re from Westchester or New York City or someplace similar, odds are people here don’t know you yet. Take advantage of that, if you want to. I have never been one to pull the whole “reinvent yourself” thing (perhaps for lack of creativity) but if that is something you are into, you are in the perfect place to do it. As a junior, I’ve only been here for two years, but I can say that I’ve learned more in that time than I could have possibly imagined, and that you’re probably headed for a similar experience.
If you haven’t already bought a winter coat, get one that is a little too big and goes down past your thighs. If you had UGG boots in middle school, dust them off and bring them back with you after Thanksgiving: you’ll be happy to have them on late-night runs to Nasty’s and whatnot. Not to shade RPCC, but Appel is my favorite dining hall on North Campus. If you Instagram a picture at a frat party, you don’t really need to include the location stating which frat you were at. You can, but you don’t have to. When you do laundry, you technically have to separate lights and darks… but in my experience, nothing happens when you don’t. If there’s something you don’t know how to do — whether it’s makeup for going out or literally using a washing machine — YouTube is your friend.
Take advantage of your time here. It may be cliche, but I feel like I just blinked and now I’m a junior, blowing by the halfway mark on my time here at Cornell. Whenever I pass by the hotel I stayed in on the night before freshman move-in, I’m struck with both the residual stress from the nervousness of coming here and the insanity of how quickly time has passed since then, and how sweet it has all been. Keep an open mind, go with your gut, and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Dissent appears alternating Mondays this semester. Jacqueline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.