September 7, 2020

YAO | Cornell Study Abroad: Home Edition

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For the first two months of summer, I didn’t even entertain the idea of staying home. Even as the nationwide case count skyrocketed, my friends and I discussed what in-person lectures might entail and made plans to meet up once classes started. The little town of Ithaca lodged in my mind as a refuge, where I would finally be free from the horrors of reality.

Then August came, and the blows began to rain down. Cornell announced that it didn’t have the means to quarantine all the students from states on the New York Travel Advisory list. Hours later, my roommate texted to say that she had put in a housing cancellation request. As my own state of Ohio oscillated on and off the Advisory website, the odds of my returning to campus grew smaller by the day.

When the tentative course roster dropped, my decision to stay home should have been solidified –– nearly every class I wanted to take was online. However, because I choose to be indecisive in all walks of life (Cornell did say they wanted well-rounded students), building up the courage to cancel my housing contract took:

  • Nine pro/con lists
  • Seven potential class schedules
  • Five breakdowns
  • Three straight hours of staring at the submit icon
  • And a partridge in a pear tree.

A month’s worth of sheer panic culminated in a single anticlimactic press of the button that sealed my fate for fall semester. Almost immediately afterward, my phone lit up with notifications from friends who had moved into their dorms that afternoon. The pictures of North Campus and Ithaca Commons that were so welcoming a mere six months ago felt like snapshots of an unfamiliar life. A part of me wondered how I would ever integrate back into that life in the future. The fear of missing out had taken root, and it wouldn’t be letting me go any time soon.

I’ve accepted that there’s nothing wrong with feeling this way, even as much larger issues envelope the world. It’s okay to regret the loss of those everyday moments that were taken for granted. To come to terms with the idea that some friendships may wane without in-person contact. To mourn the loss of faith in a future that grows more fragile with each passing hour.

But it’s just as important to remind myself that I made the best decision for me. We continue to see how the pandemic breeds distrust and blame, as masses fear the fateful misstep that could send them packing. Even walking into the grocery store, armed with face-masks and gloves, feels like marching into a war zone. Was this the way I wanted to live out my sophomore fall? Dodging panicked texts from my parents about the COVID dashboard and dreading the next collegetown party? For me, the reward doesn’t justify the risk, and I’m working on alleviating the irrational FOMO that rears up at the worst times.

For example, on the first day of school, I set thirty-minute daily time limits on all of my social media apps. While Instagram and Facebook have opened up a million new avenues of communication, they fail to provide the intimacy that most people look for when isolated. The average user in 2020 spends about two and a half hours scrolling through social media each day. Over a semester, that’s almost five days spent comparing yourself to a curated illusion of someone else’s existence.

Instead, concentrate on the positives in your own life. Personally, I’m grateful for having a safe place to take online classes. When prelim season hits or a global catastrophe occurs, I’ll be glad to have my parents as a close support system, even if I won’t be near my friends. Physical isolation could be a chance to reflect on the relationships and endeavors that really matter to us. Maybe that’s the real upside of this whole situation. Or maybe the true blessing is not getting a cotton swab shoved up your nose each week.

Although this semester at home probably doesn’t provide the fulfilling study abroad opportunity most of us want, it doesn’t mean this part of our college experience is a wash. It just means the time we spend taking classes in Ithaca later on will be that much more valuable. Regardless of what part of the world we’re in right now, Cornell’s campus will be waiting for us when we’re finally ready to return.

Katherine Yao is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kyao@cornellsun.com. Her column, Hello Katie, runs every other Wednesday this semester.