March 17, 2020

YAO | My Final Freshman Feels, in the Wake of the Coronavirus

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When people warned me that my freshman year in college would be the most difficult, I was expecting many long, hot dates with Calculus: Early Transcendentals in the Olin Stacks. Never did I imagine that there would be a coronapocalypse.

I’m typing this article on my phone with one hand, my dead laptop having long been tucked away in some bag or another. My other hand is throwing some unworn spring dresses into a suitcase. A tangled web of blankets swathes my feet. I can’t find the aforementioned calculus textbook anywhere. With every overflowing box and each poster ripped from the walls, I am moving one step closer to reverting my sanctuary of the past eight-ish months to a barren dorm room. By the time I finish cleaning, even the vomit stain on the carpet will disappear.

After the dust from all the cardboard boxes settle, you wouldn’t know that my –– wait, but it’s not mine anymore –– that this Donlon quad was where I met the best roommates in the world. Where I cried after my first (and second and third) prelim. Where I fell apart and pulled myself together upon hearing President Pollack’s life-shattering statement last Friday.

A mere three weeks ago, the thought of coronavirus making its way to Ithaca seemed almost unimaginable. Yet here we are. Two positive cases about ten minutes away from Cornell. I spent the past few days phasing between reality and nightmare –– to be honest, the line between the two has all but disappeared. A constant mantra of “should I petition to stay” played through my mind as I thought of potentially bringing the virus home to my immunocompromised mother. As I pictured my relatives quarantined in China. As the selfish part of me grasped in vain at the fading remnants of my freshman spring.

Ultimately, I decided to go back to Ohio, and I am fortunate enough that my moving process can be carried out with relative ease. Many of my international friends face dilemmas with far higher stakes. Going home, for them, means large time zone differences and the uncertainty of returning to the United States. Staying in Ithaca means indefinite separation from family and friends. Both options involve high costs, visa considerations and health concerns.

I could write a book about the fears of the Cornell community, government incompetencies or even the sheer stupidity of college town block parties (turns out common sense, like face masks and toilet paper, is in short supply these days). But I instead want to reflect on a quote that I recently found (fine, a quote that I googled just now) by Victor Frankl: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So, in the latter part of this column, I choose to be grateful.

For all that we roast Zoom, the fact that technology has advanced to the point where we can gain any semblance of an education right now is remarkable. I am grateful for the professors who must figure out Zoom, along with Canvas, Gradescope and many other softwares to make this transition as seamless as possible. To my peers, please show your instructors patience, as they, just like us, are struggling to navigate these uncharted circumstances.

I want to thank the dining staff for working to maintain normalcy in the locations around campus where we need it the most. In the midst of the chaos, we can always rely on these places of refuge to share food and conversation, tears and commiseration. But maybe don’t literally share food. And unrelated to the dining halls, definitely don’t share alcohol at, say, some college town parties in the upcoming weeks. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

Most of all, I am grateful for the shows of solidarity among my fellow Cornellians. Every insistence that “it’s only the flu” has been contradicted by countless conversations seeking to correct such rampant misinformation. From the strangers who left heartwarming notes on my library table last Tuesday to the Donlonians helping people move out, I know that I can find solace in the community I’ve learned to call my own. Our instinct to seek out humor exhibits our compassion because we insist on spreading laughter in lieu of panic. Even when everything goes south, we choose to fight fear with memes and empathy.

I will miss the first Ithaca cherry blossoms and my freshman Slope Day, but I look forward to returning next school year having realized the full strength of this institution. As it stands, I have (hopefully) three more years in the ivory tower we call Cornell. Three more years to cherish. Three more years to create memories that nothing, virus or otherwise, can steal away. Three more years that grow all the more valuable because I understand how precarious that tower truly is.


Katherine Yao is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.