Alia Adler ’22 remembers when Willard Straight Hall smelled like popcorn, the lobby bustling with students exchanging a freshly popped bag and a conversation before heading off to class.
She remembers the crowds of students who used to rush through the student union each day during her first two years at Cornell — catching up with friends, waiting in line for Carli Lloyd tickets or even napping on browsing library couches after a long day.
But 19 months after campus first shut down, the Willard Straight Hall lobby smells like hand sanitizer. Students wandering into the building are greeted by signs that read “Please do not sit here,” rather than club representatives tabling. The longest lines aren’t for free popcorn at the Resource Center, but for a slot at one of Cornell’s busiest COVID testing sites.
“That big library where the testing is in? That’s where I used to study all the time,” Adler said. “You could take a nap there, you could go study. And right next door was free popcorn. I was there all the time. Now those spaces are gone, so I barely go anymore.”
Even as campus springs back to life this fall, with students spilling onto quads between classes, Willard Straight Hall is not yet the hub for student and campus life that it was before the pandemic. Lobby run-ins are a pre-COVID memory to just upperclassmen, the main floor of the student union now largely dark and empty. Many students say they rarely linger in the Straight, heading inside just for weekly nose swabs.
Some of the old events, however, have returned: Cornell Cinema is back with movie screenings, a renovated Okenshields has moved entrances and Student Assembly meetings once again convene in the Memorial Room.
But the Willard Straight Hall Resource Center (renamed the Campus Activities Resource Center in fall 2019) has remained closed since March 2020. The lobby nook popped up free popcorn for decades, filled with a steady stream of visitors stopping by for a buttered and nutritional yeast-dusted snack.
“Given the various public health precautions put in place in response to COVID it was determined to pause the distribution of popcorn to limit building traffic and prioritize testing and concentrate food consumption in dining hall and eatery areas within Willard Straight Hall,” campus and community engagement, a unit within student and campus life, wrote to The Sun.
Linda Siptrott, campus activities program coordinator and former Resource Center manager, said one of the primary functions of the center was to support student groups — from organizing campus mail to offering directions and booking club meetings.
Now that many of these resources are available online, the campus and community engagement team no longer needs to staff the center for this purpose. Student employees on the campus activities engagement team can meet with students in 520 Willard Straight Hall to support campus organizations, answering questions about everything from registration to funding.
But to the student workers who staffed the Resource Center, it was more than just a job. It was also about finding community, former popcorn workers said. It was about cultivating kindness and connecting with strangers. It was a place for students to be themselves.
Adler, who worked at the center from her first year until the campus shutdown, remembers changing into her red Resource Center polo and keeping the popcorn machine running (while trying not to spill butter on herself). She recalls her favorite garlic bread popcorn seasoning and the regulars from Cornell Health — and Adler also remembers engaging with students at the popcorn stand as a key part of her job.
“It’s the idea that no matter what is happening in the world, a snack and a short conversation with a stranger can make it a little bit better,” said Maya Cutforth ’20, who worked at the Resource Center from her sophomore to senior year. “I think to be a popcorn person means to not undersell the impact of what it means to be intentional with strangers, to see them as whole people.”
Many former Resource Center student workers, who dished out popcorn and cracked jokes to patrons, affectionately refer to themselves as “popcorn people.” And for Cutforth, this identity is still close to her heart, even as an alumna. Like Adler, Cutforth recalled conversations with strangers, from touring visitors to chemical engineers, shedding the silos of campus life.
“Out of all of the things that make Cornell, Cornell, I would argue that popcorn is really one of them,” Cutforth said. “Of all the things at Cornell, this is the thing that I will fight for. It was such a critical part of my Cornell experience.”
For former Resource Center student manager Cristian Gonzalez ’20, these moments of connection with strangers and with coworkers marked his time behind the popcorn counter — a job he said that started as a means to an end but evolved into a home on campus.
Gonzalez described the popcorn counter as a therapeutic space for students, where people opened up about their days and their lives. It was also a place where student employees worked to make those stopping by feel at home, from putting on Jeopardy! to dishing out hot chocolate on the first winter snow.
Spending time at the Straight also became a mainstay for Gonzalez, remembering the student union as a cozy place to unwind.
“It was an anchor to Central Campus,” Gonzalez said. “I know so many people who would say, ‘Let’s meet at Willard Straight to plan something out, do some quick homework, take a nap.’”
“It mattered to people,” he continued. “I empathize with the University in terms of risk management and needing a big space to get COVID tests done. But I think it’s just a tragic set of circumstances, where I don’t imagine popcorn coming back anytime soon.”
Madi Fulchiero ’23, who said she used to grab popcorn three times a week as a first-year student, remembered the Willard Straight Hall lobby as a place to stay and eat between classes.
“It was such an easy way to just get a little snack before class without having a full sit-down meal at Okenshields,” Fulchiero said. “It was just very reflective of the college experience. Where else in the world can you just go and get free popcorn that’s cheesy garlic bread flavored and be at your class 10 minutes later?”
Now in her third year at Cornell, Fulchiero said she rarely hangs out in the Straight anymore, spending time outside between classes instead.
“Nobody wants to hang out in an area where there’s a constant influx of COVID testing,” Fulchiero said. “I don’t really think people choose to spend time there anymore, which is really sad, because that’s what it was originally made for, for students.”
According to American studies lecturer Corey Ryan Earle ’07, Willard Straight 1901 asked his wife Dorothy Whitney Straight to use his estate to do “such thing or things for Cornell University as she may think most fitting and useful to make the same a more human place.” Dorothy worked with University leadership to develop a student union, a space that would bring students together. Willard Straight Hall opened in 1925 as one of the first student unions in the country.
Even as the pandemic has shifted the building’s role as a campus hub, Earle said it has also changed over the long term, as Cornell has decentralized resources and services — and as newer buildings, like Duffield Hall and Klarman Hall, have incorporated communal space into their designs.
“Students also can access information, resources, tickets, advertisements, and nearly everything else online, replacing the need for information desks and bulletin boards at The Straight,” Earle wrote to The Sun. “With cell phones and email, making arrangements to meet a friend is a lot of easier now than it was in the earlier days of heading to a community space like The Straight and hoping your friends might be there.”
Now, Siptrott said the campus and community engagement team is working with the dean of students office and student leaders to consider new concepts for the space that was previously the Resource Center.
As Willard Straight Hall lingers in its pandemic era state and as Cornell reimagines the lobby space, Cutforth said she thinks the Resource Center’s ethos of slowing down and connecting remains central to the student union’s history of activism, protest and community.
“I think Cornell will be missing this opportunity where students can be themselves outside of the identity they hold in terms of student activities,” Cutforth said. “There’s something so freeing about interacting with strangers, cracking bad jokes and you never have to see them again. It’s just an intensely humanizing experience.”
As she looks down the home stretch of her time at Cornell, Adler said she’s still figuring out how to reconnect with the campus she left her sophomore year, with fewer chances for spontaneous connection.
“It really disconnects you from the rest of campus not having these casual spaces anymore. There aren’t good places to get lunch with my friends or randomly meet up,” Adler said. “It makes it feel like much less of a community to not have casual things to be able to go to or to not be able to run into people the same way you were able to previously.”