Moments after taking the last exam of my freshman year — before preparing to head home to Los Angeles — I walked into Lincoln Hall, found an unoccupied music room and cried silently, fiddling aimlessly with piano keys. It wasn’t for the reasons you might expect. I wasn’t crying over the difficulty of the exam or just how “average” of a Cornellian I was. I was crying because I didn’t want to go back home.
I sometimes receive sarcastic remarks like “lucky” or a high-pitched “why would you leave?” when I tell other Cornellians I’m from Los Angeles, Calif. Before coming to Cornell, I never realized California and my hometown were adored by so many who have never lived there — let alone visited them.
I didn’t quite understand why California was adored so much. California is nicknamed “The Golden State,” but it was always gilded in my eyes. Only I and other Californians know what lies beneath sunny weather is a layer of pervasive pollution, its famous locales that are plagued by traffic jams and its infamously high gas prices that serve as a microcosm of the steep cost of living in the state.
But perhaps my view of the West Coast jewel is tarnished by my desensitization to the glory and glamor surrounding it. I was always quite indifferent to my hometown, but it’s only because I’ve lived there my entire life. I’ve visited Hollywood and Disneyland dozens of times, and the state’s sunny weather has become more annoying and boring than rejuvenating. In contrast to the plethora of UC-bound students in my graduating class, when I received my acceptance letter to Cornell, I knew it was time to leave.
Ironically, though, I gained more appreciation for California while I was away at Cornell. As a freshman, as excited as I was to leave my hometown and start college life, I was just as excited to leave Cornell to return home for the winter break. In contrast to the snowy weather of the East Coast, California’s sunny weather no longer seemed like a bad consideration. I would rather be a victim of sunburn than freeze in Ithaca’s winter, I told myself. Freedom was nice, too. Once the semester ends, my actions could finally be meaningless. I no longer have to adhere to the stresses that inevitably pair with a desire to succeed. During the break, I took unprecedented pride in locking myself in my room to play video games until 4 a.m. on a nightly basis.
In the final days of winter break, however, something strange occurred. As I began to pack my luggage, the enthusiasm I possessed when I originally started my Cornell life was now mysteriously gone. I was not looking forward to being there again — in fact, I was miserable. I vividly recall walking on the Arts Quad with one of my closest friends shortly after arriving to Cornell for that first spring semester. “Ray,” I said, “I don’t want to be here.” It seems that my initial perception of Cornell in high school from afar was much brighter than my actual reality there.
But why? Did Cornell fail to meet my expectations? Did I hate Cornell? Was California truly the “Golden State?”
I think about that day in Lincoln Hall every now and then. The situation was paradoxical, and familiar questions started to resurface in my mind.
Did I suddenly despise Los Angeles? Was I unhappy there? Were my conceptions about Ithaca and Los Angeles misconstrued all along?
But this paradox was precisely what I needed. I couldn’t answer any of my questions for a good reason; I was asking the wrong ones. It was hardly a matter of which area I hated or loved more. Indeed, each place has its pros and cons. But each place is also what you make of it.
The factors that caused me to dislike Cornell my first semester were precisely the same reasons I fell in love with it the next semester. I initially hated large class sizes and the existence of prelims, but came to appreciate them as an outlet to study with and befriend many people around me. I learned to value Cornell for what it is, an amazing community of intellectuals, and not dislike it for its differences from my hometown.
Maybe there’s a sense of humility to be observed. I never appreciated warm weather until it was taken away from me. And I never appreciated nature and dynamic weather until I was surrounded by it. Fortunately for me, Los Angeles and Cornell form enough of a dichotomy that I can’t begin to wonder what life would be like without either one.
Nile Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Rivers of Consciousness runs every other Wednesday this semester. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.