November 17, 2019

PARK | Rediscovering Cornell Through Oceans

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For the uninitiated, EAS 1540: Introduction to Oceanography is Prof. Bruce Monger’s, earth and atmospheric sciences, 1000-level introductory science course of over a thousand students, #8 on Cornell’s 161 and an easy A for the scientifically challenged trying to fulfill distribution requirements. No one takes Oceans as a senior because their career path took a turn for the nautical or because of a deep, latent love for the sea, especially not an ILRie who barely survived high school biology. So how did I find myself doing Oceans homework on a Friday night, crying about the environment?

My first semester at Cornell, I joined the University Assembly, where I sat next to Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology. To freshman Sarah, this was nothing short of insane, because I had cited his research on methane in a high school debate case just a few months prior, and now we were discussing the implications of Cornell’s 2035 Climate Neutrality Plan. I felt beyond lucky to be at Cornell; I was certain I would take full advantage of all this school had to offer, learn from such prominent scholars and take courses that inspired and changed me.

But somewhere over the next four years, as the novelty of Cornell faded, I forgot about this; I let my intellectual curiosity fall behind my course requirements and arbitrary GPA aspirations set forth by the law school powers that be. We like to think that each class we take changes us or challenges our worldview, but I could certainly name a few where I already forgot everything I learned. At the same time, It’s hard to find meaning or appreciate the beauty of the process when you’re trying to stuff facts into your brain at 3 a.m. hours before an exam.

I made a spreadsheet of my grades, tracked my course requirements and planned out my minors, and the crazy part is that there was literally no need for any of this. I don’t even know if I want to go to law school. And I’m fairly certain that none of my future employers will give a single damn about my minors. Even during my final course enroll, I found the easiest way to fulfill my final requirements so I can have the freedom to spend my time how I please in my last semester.

But that’s how I found myself, in the second-to-last semester in one of the largest and cushiest of Cornell classes, to satisfy my single science requirement. And after attending a cumulative 0.5 lectures this semester (the amount of time it took me to realize they were recorded) and completing two prelims, I finally decided to watch my assigned movie on climate change.

After watching the jarring destruction we have laid, how much people are suffering, all the means we have to bring about change and how little we do for our world, I became acutely aware of how my behavior was directly impacting climate change. And over the next week, I found myself evaluating my own carbon output, deciding to give up red meat for good, trying to determine if purchasing carbon offsets will do more than assuage my moral guilt, binge-watching my missed lectures and telling my uninterested friends how marine algae can save our world. This all came strangely full circle when I attended my first full lecture I’ve all year, where I found myself surprised to see Robert Howarth giving a guest lecture on how methane contributes to global warming.

And sitting in Bailey with a half-full lecture hall of hungover freshmen reminded me of the reason I came here to get educated in the first place, which had nothing to do with test grades or scores, but to be a more mindful, aware and thoughtful member of this world. And that intellectual engagement can come in so many forms in so many places, but somewhere along the way, I forgot the simple, exquisite beauty of sitting in a class I never expected to take and having my mind blown. I just have to show up.

Sarah Park is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at or likely somewhere in Libe Cafe. Spark Notes runs every other Monday this semester.