February 9, 2021

YAO | On-Campus Ruminations After a Semester Away

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Five months ago, amid a whole lot of FOMO but even more uncertainty, I wrote a column titled Cornell Study Abroad: Home Edition. I had elected to stay at home for the fall semester due to a variety of reasons, not least because of the rising case count and the mounting panic I felt every time another university shut down. But just as staying home last semester felt like the best decision at the time, coming back felt natural for this spring. Remote school had reached the stage of monotony where any change seemed better than the existing condition, so I took the leap and found my way back to the snowy gorges of upstate New York. 

After almost an entire year away, being back in Ithaca is a bit like a fever dream. I can only describe it as feeling like seeing a friend you had lost contact with, only to realize upon meeting that you had both drastically changed. Sure, the clock tower still chimes that same tune every 15 minutes. The buildings all stand guard in their rows. Even the sledders on Libe Slope form a familiar sight. 

And yet, plastered over all of the doors are “Do Not Enter” signs. Masked-up students throw dubious glances at one another on the walkways and dining-hall lines. The Daily Check emails and testing reminders that flood my inbox still surprise me every day. 

Last fall, I spent my time oscillating between raging regret and numbing relief. Regret over what might have been. Relief over sidestepping some of the paranoia that I knew would follow me everywhere on campus. I still wrestle with these emotions, but they’ve since switched places. When I’m laughing with friends inside a dining hall or trying to find the most aesthetic camera shot of the Arts Quad, it’s easier to pretend that this is just a normal semester. But when I catch a glimpse of a “Six Feet Apart” sign, or when my inbox pings with some dreaded email about Cornell’s case count, reality seeps back into my consciousness. 

Although it seems like forever ago, in that fall column, I said something along the lines of: “Was this the way I wanted to live out my sophomore fall … dreading the next Collegetown party?” In an ironic twist of events, I am now doing exactly that. President Pollack’s statement last Thursday reported a cluster of at least 12 COVID-positive students after a party in Collegetown. I looked at the “Code Yellow” banner with a pit of shame brewing in my stomach that these students would prioritize getting drunk over the health of their communities. Every single one of us owes it to Ithaca, our fellow Cornellians and ourselves to take as many precautionary measures as possible to keep everyone safe. It only takes a few careless events to send the entire student body packing. 

We can’t forget that it is a privilege to be back on campus, especially when so many universities in America remain shuttered for another semester. Even as worries — both rational and irrational — invade my waking thoughts, I am beyond grateful for the chance to retrace my old paths through Ho Plaza and North Campus. Even as I teeter between wanting to enjoy myself here and wanting to hole up in my room until May, I feel cautiously optimistic about Cornell’s outbreak prevention strategies that had worked in keeping the campus open all of last term. At the end of the day, there is no objective answer about whether to stay home or return to campus this semester. Whichever path we take in that fork in the road, the only thing we can do is make the most of our circumstances and try to do right by ourselves and our communities. 

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.