November 8, 2021

NGUYEN | In Which We Grow

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Here at Cornell, facts and figures flutter around my brain like butterflies. They whiz in through my ears, flit around in my head for a bit, then flicker away without a trace. I can never seem to retain lessons taught from lecture slides and textbooks. There’s a point in every class when my professors’ voices drone into lines of static and my fingers start to itch for Twitter. Sitting on the floor of my brain is a mountain of academic-sounding slop and forgotten course concepts.

Between the walls of Cornell, I’ve picked up bytes of Spanish and French. I’ve taken notes on the anatomy of the human brain and I’ve pretended to understand Foucalt. I’ve pored over reams of assigned readings, typed out hundreds of Google Doc pages and spent hours on end trying to stay afloat in my classes.

But still, more than three years deep into Cornellhood and I can’t help but wonder: Has Cornell changed me? What have we really learned here?

I know for a fact that I’m not the same freshman who plopped onto North Campus an eternity ago. When I was seventeen and newly ripe to college, I stood miles away from what I thought was adulthood. I remember endless common-sense Google searches. How to dress for the snow. How often to wash your sheets. How much water to put in instant oatmeal. I leaned on Google whenever I felt confused or daunted by my newfangled college independence.

But three years whizzed by and I’m now twenty-one. And with my toes pressed up against life after Cornell, I no longer feel like a little kid trying on the oversized shoes of adulthood. I’ve arrived at my twenties with a firmer grip on my independence, with a knowing confidence that I’ll be able to trek through adult life just fine.

It’s worth mentioning, though, that most of the life lessons I’ve picked up from college weren’t gleaned from a Cornell classroom. Despite the time and effort I’ve devoted to my classes, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the college learning experience. Most of us have spent our entire lives within the tracks of American schooling. Either consciously or not, we learn that academic success has little to do with intellectual enrichment. Rote memorization and textbook regurgitation are enough to buoy us through college. Grades and GPAs take precedent. Learning takes a backseat.

Not to mention, once we’re hurtled into the whirlwind of college, it’s hard to even realize whether or not we’ve changed over the years. College itself feels like a long breath held in, like a pause between adolescence and adulthood. And as our youth hangs still, suspended for four hazy years, we get swept up by the motions of day-to-day college life. Our Google Calendars quickly grow populated with classes and commitments. We get lost in academic tunnel vision.

Thankfully though, even for those who pull countless all-nighters in Duffield or pack their schedules with mountains of work, college weighs on all of us with the responsibility of independence. The winds that have shaped me weren’t spun from lecture slides in a classroom — but from the quiet of domestic living. On the walk home from campus, when I pick up last-minute 7/11 groceries for dinner. In my apartment’s living room, at the produce section of Wegman’s, at the kitchen sink where dishes never stop piling.

It took me until senior year to realize that life happens during the blank spaces of our Google Calendars, between the cracks of our busy schedules. It happens when we’re staring into the fridge and kicking ourselves for overestimating the shelf life of spinach again, or when we’re wiping down the house and stacking away cups after a messy pregame from the night before. No, they’re not always the most fun or the most glamorous teachable moments. But they’re lessons nonetheless, and there’s value to be found in the mundanities and domesticities that build our non-academic lives.

After a year of tuning into virtual Zoom classes, I never thought that I’d find myself grateful for my living space to also be my classroom again. I still have trouble with leaving my homework on the kitchen table, and I don’t clean my bathroom as often as I should. But when I pull my head up from typing out essays and memorizing lecture slides, I’m comforted by what lessons I know won’t sprint away from my brain once the semester ends. How to sign a lease, how to make pesto, how to keep an apartment from going up in flames.

Four years of independence gifts us with puzzle pieces to adulthood. And when you finally take a step back and look at what you’ve cobbled together — for me, a picture of my roommates and I cooking falafels and laughing as we watch High School Musical at our kitchen table — you might just realize: this is growing up.

Niko Nguyen is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] Fault Line runs every other Friday this semester.