May 6, 2020

DERY | A Letter to My Incoming Freshman Self

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To my incoming freshman self,

It feels like just yesterday when I was in your shoes, dead-set on fall 2019’s much-anticipated move-in, orientation week and first day of classes. As of now you tell those who ask that you’re excited, but we both know that’s a grand oversimplification. Behind that excitement, you’re afraid of the uncertain, terrified you won’t fit in and anxious to see how high school had prepared you for this next big step.

As I recall, you’re also getting bombarded with congratulations and advice ranging from alumni graduating decades ago to current college students — whether here at Cornell or those you met back in high school. Allow me to join the chorus and offer my two cents on what to expect, from someone who came out on the other side.

I remember the messages you sent out to every upperclassman on your phone from high school, asking them about their orientation week. Responses vary from: “You’ll be fine, it’s all preorganized with events so just follow the schedule,” to: “Don’t care what anyone thinks of you … you won’t ever interact with the people you meet during O-week again.” Looking back, there’s some truth to each that you couldn’t possibly appreciate now, but there’s also falsehoods that you’re overthinking.

First of all, be yourself — but before you roll your eyes (I know you’ve been told that countless times by now), let me explain. You’ll soon be faced with a refreshing chance at a clean slate, alongside the rest of your to-be classmates. You’re thus convinced you’ll need to reinvent yourself in college, that your shyness from grade school won’t cut it. It’s for this reason that when you visited campus during Cornell Days just a few weeks ago, your mind was constantly set on finding a roommate, so you asked the first person you shadowed a class with after just one hour of meeting him: It was an ordeal you two will later laugh about, but at the time, as you admit, it was rather absurd. I also still remember that night spent at a senior host’s room, where you were paranoid that your awkward first impression on fellow incoming freshmen was a permanent stain that would return to haunt you in the fall. All of the above (except for our freshman roommate, who I still would have loved to share a room with as I write this article), will prove that you shouldn’t care too much what others — not even me — think or tell you about how your move-in will pan out.

Yet, at the very same time, give everything and, more importantly, everyone you meet a chance. Then give them a second, and maybe even a third, too. Be open before you are dismissive. On your first day, as you first move your belongings into your dorm room, your upperclassman O-Week guide will tell you of her very own first day, when she adventurously explored the campus with her roommate. But please don’t think that sunny day will play out the same for you. Just a few hours later, you’ll find yourself at the Cornell Store, shopping with Mom — just like the good old days. Only this time, you’ll be buying the extra shelves that she keeps insisting you need (which, as I can now attest, you truly do; did you really think she’d forget so soon?). You’ll spend your first afternoon as a Cornellian dragging a lawn chair and three plastic shelves on a metal cart from Ho Plaza to Kay Hall.

But as you lay defeated in your dorm room after your family leaves, convinced you’ve failed at the move-in day you’ve been imagining for weeks, head over to your first floor meeting. There, a group of people have gathered to plan a fantasy football league — and out of those ten people, two will be among your best friends. So will be the person who you’ll sit next to at the following day’s lunch at North Star, and so will some of the others you’ll play cards with later that night in a Dickson Hall lounge. The point being: Don’t let anyone else’s experience blue-print your own. Stay open to everything, and don’t sweat the awkward mishaps. One of the wisest pieces of advice you will have heard over the next few days — said in a completely unrelated, and much less profound context — is to “embrace the joke.” Welcome every interaction or fluke that didn’t go as planned, and try to cherish it. I now laugh at the notion that a lawn chair was the source of my misery during that first afternoon on move-in day; trust me, you’ll go on to do some of your finest work sitting in it throughout the semester, munching on Nasty’s half-pound BBQ wings at 2 a.m. You were foolish to plan out your move-in weekend, and when it went astray, it was even more futile to name scapegoats. Be spontaneous, and embrace the joke. I mean it.

But, in the heat of the moment, you’ll find that freshman orientation is often not the rosy and stress-free welcome to the Hill that it’s made out to be. At its worst, the week without classes and with actively recruiting Greek life will build-up a lot of peer-pressure: To party, to socialize and to make friends as soon as possible. At times, you’ll find yourself caring about others’ perceptions more than you had since middle school; the cliques that soon form around campus will make you feel you need your own. It’s natural to struggle with this reality at first; it’s nothing like what you’ve ever experienced in high school. But don’t be too quick to bitterly lash out at party culture, to reduce it to a peer pressure that you ought to resist. For, though you may in many ways be justified, you should get off your high horse, and not push away those you labelled “partiers” after a week. In an attempt to isolate them, you’ll only isolate yourself. And though I now have no regrets about choosing not to participate with them, I do now wish that you hadn’t ruled them out — among others — based on what you considered “not you.”

Most importantly, take your first few weeks slow, and your first week slowest. You’ll soon tell your new friends in the waning days of O-Week that you wish for classes to start, so as to settle into “the routine.” Be careful what you wish for. Classes will come, and with them their highs and lows, but there is a time for that, and there is also a time to simply try new things with nothing else on your mind. Treat O-Week as an opportunity to learn about yourself, and more importantly, about those who can help you do so. Don’t take those first few days and weeks for granted, or wish them away in frustration — trust me, you’ll likely not experience anything similar to it for the rest of your life. Though in the moment it all may seem like an exhausting and redundant sharade, keep asking people where they’re from and what their major is, because you never know if the next person you meet is the one you’ve been looking for. Enjoy it because, soon enough, you will become the reminiscing, to-be upperclassmen I am today, pleading for you not to take for granted what lies ahead.

So, when you first charter the Ithaca campus, whenever that may be, don’t take a map, and don’t feel the need to plan out every hour of every day on Cornell Connects. It’s okay to prematurely explore the libraries in search of a study spot, but only if you bring some friends along with you. Don’t let any upperclassman tell you that the AD White library is eye candy, or that Okenshields is only good for its mint candy. Don’t even let me tell you either. Try it yourself. No, you’re not too cool for floor meetings, and no, you shouldn’t force a friendship with every smiling face you see on the Quad — but hey, give it a chance.


Your incoming sophomore self

 Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.