October 13, 2021

SMITH | Am I an Ithacan?

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I work at a restaurant off-campus, and the other day a customer asked one of my coworkers, “Do you go to Cornell?” My coworker said “No,” and the customer explained that since “You took a bunch of tables’ orders without writing anything down we just assumed that you must be smart and in the Ivy League.” Aside from this statement being wrong on just so many levels, it got me thinking about my place in Ithaca and Cornell. I’ve reflected previously in other articles about my connection to Ithaca as a town, but I’m still grappling with whether or not a Cornell student can truly become an Ithacan. I work for a small business, volunteer for a local organization and have an Ithaca zip code. But I am also a contributing factor to Ithaca being one of the least affordable housing markets in the U.S., a source of arguable instability in the Ithaca economy and the subject of a questionable  “reopening experiment.

Most Cornell students experience Ithaca from a place of privilege. It is a source of recreation in the form of restaurants, the farmer’s market, wineries and hiking trails, to be tapped into when time allows. I can’t speak about this situation as a monolith and I’m wary of generalizations. There are Cornell students who are from Ithaca and grew up here. There are Ithaca residents who are alumni. But I find myself wondering if all my reasons as to why I feel a connection to Ithaca make me a “Cornellian” or an “Ithacan.” Yeah, I spent a summer here. But every night I went back up the top of the hill to my Collegetown apartment. I don’t take pride in the economic “control” the college community has over the township, it makes me feel concerned that there are people’s livelihoods reliant on the whim of college students. As the semester ramps up, I’ve watched my tip-dependent paycheck dwindle and I know I’m not alone. We have the privilege to experience Ithaca as much as we choose to. We can never leave campus if we want, we can grab a coffee in Collegetown, maybe even dinner in the Commons and peruse the market and Target. I know next to nothing about Ithaca politics except a student was just elected to a position and there’s a lot of talk about 5-G coverage. I don’t have any personal stake in the school board or other town affairs. Cornell is also tax-exempt and doesn’t pay property taxes on our massive campus, and there are constant debates about what Cornell’s financial contribution to the city should be. 

I am a student first and foremost and all of my interactions with Ithaca are voluntary. I can avoid streets I don’t want to run on and pretend they don’t exist. I am able to easily find employment on campus because of my student status. I believe that it is possible for Cornellians to become Ithacans and that there shouldn’t be gatekeeping, but not all Cornelians are Ithacans. I am part of the community that creates a dynamic where it is assumed that people who can remember orders must be “Ivy League smart.” I can love Ithaca, appreciate it and consider its role in my life incredibly meaningful — but I’m hesitant to call myself an Ithacan. At least, not yet.

Emma Smith is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. They can be reached at [email protected]Emmpathy appears every other Wednesday this semester.