Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Students walk back to collegetown on March 13, as President Martha E. Pollack announced that the University would suspend all classes as of 5 p.m. (Boris Tsang/Sun Photography Editor)

May 13, 2020

JOHNS | Cornell Is a Time We Live, Not a Thing We Do

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A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a student leadership lunch with then-Associate Dean of Students Dr. Renee Alexander ’74. The Physical Sciences Building conference room we met in, on the fourth floor, had a beautiful panoramic view of central campus. As we stood admiring it, she reminded me to appreciate the scene while I could. Time travels fast here, she said, in our ten little square miles surrounded by reality.

Reflecting on this advice now, as I write this senior column, I realize how prescient it was. Cornell demands near-undivided attention from its overworked students, and it sometimes can be difficult to enjoy the view when we are trudging to class after an unforgiving blizzard or crossing between Olin and Uris libraries to finish a paper at 2 a.m. For those engaged in student leadership and student politics especially, under the powerful inebriants of youth and inexperience (and presumably others), Cornell’s challenges can seem orders of magnitude more consequential than they really are. There is almost no time to process it. Cornell just happens to you.

I never would have been able to (very imperfectly) balance the myriad demands of academics and student life if it weren’t for those who took it upon themselves to mentor me, like Dr. Alexander. Thank you for your patient guidance and support through these past few exhilarating years. On her thoughtful counsel, I tried to see everything I could during my time at Cornell.

That time, as this column has argued previously, is both immensely valuable and yet vanishingly scarce. Students are led to believe that they have four long years, but that is misleading: the truth is that we have far less time to be, strictly speaking, “at college.” Given that most students only spend about sixty percent of their time on campus, the average undergraduate has less than two and a half years with which to enjoy Cornell, and much of that time is dedicated to juggling demanding responsibilities and fretting over countless exams. The precious free time we are given to absorb it all is painfully elusive, largely reserved for the beginning and end of our time in Ithaca.

The time in between, though, is the largest part of what defines our memories. But that time isn’t valuable just because we were young and at Cornell; it’s also not exceptional or unique because of any of our individual accomplishments. These were all good things, to be sure. But our time is really made extraordinary because of a long series of infinitesimal and (at the time) seemingly unremarkable moments. We can all appreciate the big things, but in the true 30 months or so that we have at Cornell, it’s the little things that cumulatively make it a time that we lived, not just a thing that we did.

I cannot remember most of the afternoons I logged in my dorm. I do, however, distinctly remember holding a table in the Temple of Zeus from sunrise to sunset. I remember Hot Truck runs, lunch buffets at Mehak and post-event dinners at Taverna Banfi. I remember writing special editions at The Sun’s ivy-covered State Street office, gaveling in Political Union motions in the Founders Room and holding eboard meetings turned surprise parties in the Willard Straight lofts. I remember visiting Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul and Israel on different Cornell-related journeys.

One ultimately does not come to Cornell to simply read and analyze the same books studied at other universities. Most of those could probably be found online, anyway. No, one ultimately comes to Cornell for the people; every spiraling hours-long conversation in a closed café has as much relevance to a Cornell education as the readings. Focus on the text alone, and one runs the risk of missing out on the world.

In that spirit, I want to offer my sincerest gratitude to those who were my world these last few years. Thank you to my roommate and greatest friend Isaac Schorr ’20 for his unflinching leadership and to both Anna Girod ’20 and Josh Nathanson ’20, our fellow elders and the other half of the infamous Merrick’s Angels. Thank you to my fellow columnists Weifeng Yang ’20 and John Sullivan Baker ’20, who were with me all the way from election night 2016 to the closing of the Lair; it’s incredible how much we have all been through. And thank you to Thérèse Russell ’20 and Mason Woods ’20 for some of the best times I had at Cornell.

Thankfully, our successors are some of the very best that Cornell has to offer. Godspeed to Weston Barker ’21, Henry Lavacude-Cola ’22 and Brendan Dodd ’21 as they take the helm of the Cornell Republicans, my beloved Cornell Political Union and the Caucus, respectively, three iconic campus organizations that have meant the most to me in my time at Cornell. Don’t scratch the paint. Thankfully, you have great protégés, including Matthew Samilow ’22, Elise Viz ’22 and Avery Bower ’23, whom I have every confidence will be great assets in maintaining the stature of these influential campus institutions. Have a great year winning the Cup and spinning the Wheel; I wish each of you nothing but success.

No senior farewell would be complete without a thank you to the members of my CPU executive board not already mentioned, including Jason Katz ’21, Mike Gelb ’21, Alexis Fintland ’22 and Sara Stober ’22, and to the Caucus, always reasoning together, for making fall 2019 my most rewarding semester at Cornell. A humble and grateful thank you to everyone who shared that time, including Ginger Ang ’21, one of the most loyal people I know, for all the dinners and drinks and for believing in me when things weren’t easy. And finally, merci beaucoup especially to Isabella DiGiovanni ’21 – for everything, even if I’ll never get the tea stains out.

The key to really living the Cornell experience – and perhaps, living our lives too – is grasping the limited time we have been given to enjoy it. It is true that our studies and responsibilities are what brought us to Cornell, but the seemingly minute things, the little wrinkles in time, are why we truly come to love it. So, a humble piece of parting guidance: When opportunities emerge to dive into different experiences or interesting occasions at Cornell, the default answer should always be ‘yes’. Every finite opportunity – whether it’s a formal gala at the Johnson Museum or a drop-of-the-hat party plan with old friends – has immense and immutable value. Overlooking the Arts Quad those years ago, I took time to simply stand and admire the view. That peaceful scene is now happily impressed in my mind forever.

To the younger: Make time for Cornell; it has made only so much time for you.


Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. This is the final installment of his column Athwart History.