February 25, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Trying to Say Farewell to Cornell

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A week ago today, my heart was broken by an email for the third time. The Class of 2020’s frustration with their academic disruption has been shared by many across the country. But, there is a sense of loss that is unique for Cornell alumni.

While Class of 2020 students from other schools have expressed to me that they were upset about missing their in-person graduations, many seem to lack the distinct sense of loss that I and many of my Cornellian peers have. 

It’s not hard to understand why: Class of 2020 students at other schools never had the opportunity to sit at Collegetown Bagels on a “spring day” (meaning, a day over 40 degrees); they’ve never watched a sunset on the slope after a long day; they’ve never felt the sense of community when you know every person you walk past in Collegetown; they’ve never watched a hockey game at Lynah Rink, nor have they experienced all of the cheers and emotions that come with it; they’ve never felt the initial annoyance that comes when the chimes disturb your studying, followed by the feeling of awe that you’re really here​; they’ve never felt the anticipation of Slope Day; they’ve never felt the quiet camaraderie felt among those walking from Olin Library to Uris Library at 2:00 a.m.; they’ve never experienced the sense of pride that sets in when you’ve had a rough day and look up at the clocktower, imagining your family’s emotions when they witness their child graduate from an Ivy League school they had worked their life to get into (and out of).

I was told to leave Ithaca on March 17, 2020. I had to leave behind my friends that were family — many of whom I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to — and a school that had become my home. I didn’t get any of the typical senior experiences I was promised, but as it has been said, last spring was “a truly unprecedented time.”

Upon my departure, a graduation ceremony felt like the light at the end of the tunnel — and it continued to feel like that even when it was pushed to June 2021. In March, I had hoped to have a true celebration full of pictures and pride in May. But even as that graduation day passed, I clung onto the vivid dream that President Martha Pollack described: a future commencement with, “The most rousing version of the Alma Mater that you can imagine.” I was upset when it was moved to June 2021, but I understood that it wasn’t possible. This only made me imagine how much more incredible the Class of 2020’s long awaited return would be in June of 2021.

That’s why, when I received the email about graduation being canceled in the middle of my workday, I was crushed. I know I’m supposed to have moved on, but how does one move on without a proper goodbye? There was — and will never be — a formal ending to the most formative years of our lives at the place that meant the world to so many of us. When will we be able to look at pictures of McGraw Tower against the breathtaking Ithaca sunset without feeling an overwhelming sense of loss?

My heart was broken when I left Cornell, and it still hasn’t healed. I know I’m not the only member of the Class of 2020 who feels this way. I’m just looking for a proper goodbye and I can’t help but feel a bit forgotten. I left campus as a student last March and never got the chance to turn over my tassel and become an alumna. Instead, I’ve transitioned into a “guest” who is not even permitted on campus at all which, although for good reason, makes me heartbroken to think about.

I was looking forward to being welcomed back to Ithaca come June. I was looking forward to introducing my family to my friends, showing them the rooms where I gained the courage to debate my peers, revisiting my favorite spots on campus and letting them experience the chimes concert while overlooking Lake Cayuga. I was looking forward to seeing friends I haven’t seen in a year and trying to squeeze 2.5 months of college experience into 2.5 days. I was looking forward to creating the memories that we never had.

I wanted to say goodbye to Cornell’s campus the right way — without the heartache of my abrupt and fearful departure. One afternoon email changed all of that and the sense of loss I felt suddenly became so much greater. I’ll continue waiting for “the most rousing version of the Alma Mater that you can imagine” because I’ve dreamt about it so much that now, I can’t imagine life without it. That Alma Mater is meant to be sung loudly, proudly and together in Schoellkopf, and it just won’t be the same virtually and alone in my home.

I hope for this pandemic to end, I hope that current students make the most of every single second that they have at Cornell and I hope the Class of 2020 will not be further forgotten.

Thérèse Russell is member of the Class of 2020. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.