November 21, 2019

SULLIVAN BAKER | Be a Tourist at Cornell

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When I leave Ithaca for good come May, I want to be able to hang on to more than memories. If you follow me around campus long enough on any given day, you will see me go out of my way multiple times to photograph Cornell’s scenery — both the beautiful and the mundane.  A quick glance at my camera roll reveals a sunset photo of a West Campus staircase, a crooked picture of the Arts Quad after the season’s first snowfall, a gloomy shot of my favorite bus stop and a 37-second video of the McGraw Tower chimes performing a spooky rendition of the alma mater on Halloween.

And although I might look like a clueless Midwestern dad taking pictures for the family group chat, approaching Cornell like a tourist has led me to better appreciate my college experience, and it can do the same for other Cornellians

During my first three years here, I took my experience too much for granted; until the end of my junior year, graduation seemed to be a century away.  I allowed myself to get too caught up in the daily grind — the demands of prelims, the responsibilities of campus involvement, the stress of social life — to fully appreciate living a lifestyle I’ll never experience again on a stunningly picturesque campus in America’s best college town. And I realized that memories of unpleasant or high-pressure experiences have a way of crowding out memories of the fleeting yet meaningful moments of calm, usually outdoors, that bond me to this place and help keep me sane.

A tourist mentality creates and elevates positive memories. Ideally, a tourist knows her time is limited, so she fills her days with what’s meaningful to her. She strives to hang on to each experience, and she temporarily pushes aside the demands of daily life for the sake of her wellbeing. As a tourist, a student will be present and engaged with what is directly in front of him, even if he’s inclined to just go through the  motions of his daily life. Because I’ve chosen to be a tourist, I’ve created an archive of photos that evoke the emotions I feel in my fleeting moments of unadulterated Cornell happiness, I’ve discovered stunning Ithaca vistas I never knew existed and I’ve become better at creating meaningful memories amid my student responsibilities. In short, I’m defining how I’ll look back on my short time here.

We should also heed the advice of President Martha Pollack, who argued at this year’s New Student Convocation that Cornellians should refrain from wearing headphones around campus. The technology, she explained, prevents us from “be[ing] present in the moment,” and allows us to seal ourselves off from the world around us. Vacationers don’t walk around a foreign city with headphones blasting, in part because they want to fully experience urban life. To get the most out of Cornell and Ithaca, we shouldn’t either — music drowns out and distracts. You’ll miss the birdsong that animates campus on spring nights, the calming white noise of water rushing through a gorge or the eerily fascinating clanking emanating from the latest Arts Quad art installation.

Approaching Cornell from the perspective of a visitor also alleviates Cornell’s unjustified institutional insecurity, which I urged Cornellians to ditch in a column earlier this year. Familiarity breeds contempt, and we tend to underestimate our peers, ourselves and our privilege because we’re immersed in an environment where the impressive is commonplace and the exceptional can be average. By contrast, a newcomer to our community, who doesn’t carry the baggage of being a student, sees Cornell for what it is: a premier institution of higher learning with inordinately accomplished students, Ivy League gravitas and an egalitarian spirit. A student who can push baggage aside, even temporarily, grasps a similar perspective.

The tourist approach looks different for each Cornellian, so I’ll leave you with a call to reflect. If you had a week left at Cornell, how would you spend your time? What experiences would you prioritize? Which spaces would you prioritize? Are there any memories you want to re-capture before they fade along with your young adulthood?

It might seem difficult to do what I’ve proposed; Cornell’s pressures have a tendency to consume our time and mental energy, deterring us from even reflecting on our priorities, let alone going out of our way to appreciate just being here. But it doesn’t take a lot to productively tourist-ify your life at Cornell. All you need is a conscious effort to alter your perspective, a willingness to soak in the natural beauty of our environment and a bit of time out of your week to explore realms of campus you haven’t experienced before. And when you trudge up the hill to campus tomorrow morning, remove your Airpods, take a few seconds to admire Cascadilla’s rapids or the clock tower’s silhouette against the rising sun and maybe even snap a photo. It’s that easy.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at jsullivanbaker@cornellsun.com. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.