November 10, 2019

POORE | Remember What It Means to Be a Student

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This past week has been a banner week for me.

When pre-enroll opened on Monday, I had resolved on taking Hotelie wines, CALS wines, Magic Mushrooms and not much else. Feeling disillusioned from academia, I planned to spend my last semester at Cornell like a petulant child, sipping wine Tuesday through Thursday (with no class on Monday or Friday) and generally making myself as troublesome and acid to the institution as I could manage.

But then I had a meeting with my advisor to submit my application to graduate. Somehow, we ended up talking about the purpose of the modern university. That night, lost in thought, I went for a walk at midnight in my sandals and pajamas until I couldn’t feel my toes — an antiquated practice from my early University years.

The next day — on a whim — I went to an event at the Johnson museum discussing the Underground Railroad’s history in Ithaca. One of the professors talked about a class they teach where students get to work with a community church to help preserve the Railroad’s local history. Another midnight walk and more unhappy toes followed.

It culminated on Friday in a meeting to submit another application to graduate, when I got into a heated discussion with my other advisor about whether we preferred Jane Austen or George Eliot (and this was with a biology professor, no less).

I left this meeting with my advisor’s words in the back of my mind: “I think you’re like me. We’re both nerds.” Perhaps she was only insinuating that drinking wine, sleeping in until noon and skating by would get boring. But I think she also meant that no matter where I work after Cornell — wherever I land out in the real world — I’ll always be a student. And that, like me, professors are really just life-long students themselves. We won’t stop learning simply because we’re no longer in classes.

Over the past three years, I’ve felt that I’ve had my desire to learn sucked out of me with memorization, regurgitation and prayers of scoring at least the mean. But over the course of this past week, I’ve felt myself grow younger again as I’ve spoken to my professors. Even if just for a little while, I haven’t had to worry about memorizing facts or being tested or dealing with gossip or remembering who I’m eating lunch with. I’ve gotten to talk to people about their ideas. And I realized that that’s the reason why I came to Cornell in the first place.

I wanted to apply to Cornell, yes, because it was an Ivy, but also because I saw it as a place where I’d get to be around a lot of nerds like me. Cornell was where I could not only get my prestigious degree, but to actually become a better person while doing so.

It’s taken me until my senior year to remember what it’s like to be a student and not just trying to get out of here, to recall the start of my first year, when I would talk with my Romance Studies professor about their favorite Willa Cather novel, with my English professor about Icelandic sagas and both of them about what books they were currently reading and which ones they’d recommend. But now that the memory’s been restored, I’ve learned to learn again. To value my time as a student not merely as a means to an end but as a reward by itself.

It’s tragic that the world makes us feel as though we have to hide what we really love in order to fit in. Yes, trying to find a job is stressful. Balancing work with school with clubs with friends isn’t fun. But we didn’t come to Cornell to be bitter, burnt-out and stressed. We came here to learn and because we were interested in improving the world. Four years is too long to spend checking off a box.

So talk to your professors. They’re cool people — even when they’re no longer in control of your grade. And at the end of the day, at least most of them care about you as a person, regardless of how you’re doing in their class. They haven’t forgotten what it’s like to be a student, even if you have. At the very least, they’ll probably have a book or two to recommend.

If you’ve read my last column, you might be calling me a hypocrite right about now. How can I write about the raptures of intellectual curiosity two weeks after calling it a myth? But I would argue that there is enough space for me to be jaded and critical as well as hopeful and inquisitive. After all, we’re human beings. We’re not lifted from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel, condemned to a life of archetype. As scary as it is, we can be both right and wrong — and that what’s right at one time can be wrong at another.

I can only say that right now, being a bright-eyed student feels right to me. Maybe after my two essays and two tests this week I’ll be back to wishing I was in wines again and cursing the University. But for now, just know that there will be a spot opening up in VIEN 1104 next semester if anyone wants it.

And to my professors: Prepare your book recommendations, because I’m coming.

Colton Poore is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Help Me, I’m Poore runs every other Monday this semester.