May 3, 2022

WILK | Following That ‘I Don’t Belong Here’ Feeling

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Google Maps was my first friend at Cornell. I was so scared of looking lost freshman year that I never went anywhere without company, and before I knew anyone, my typing that brought the app to life was close enough to a walking partner. Together, we studied campus cartography with the kind of obsession that comes from intimidation and also adds it — the kind teenage girls teach each other to survey social scenes with. At 18, my college career could’ve been cut short more than once, all because I had my nose stuck deep in the paths on my phone screen rather than keeping my eyes on the very real roads around me. After four years, I still find myself craving direction when trying to find any of the places I haven’t been, but I guess crutches never claim to teach you how to walk on your own. 

I’m just now learning how nice walking on your own can be. When I have nothing better to do, or everything to do and no will to do it, I’ll walk with nowhere to go. It’s one of the many things I’ve recently realized my freshman year roommate and I have in common. We lived together two entire semesters before I knew her. Throughout our first year, she was so kind. If housing selection is a lottery, I hit the jackpot. Then, I was too shy to cash-in. 

As a high school senior, the concept of college was so fascinating to me that I think I almost forgot I was shy. But self-awareness set in again the second my parents left my dorm room. I came here dying to be myself, and I felt like I failed when I didn’t immediately have a group of people to follow around and lose myself in. Those first few weeks, I spent my alone time trying to blend into walls and tracing the floor plan with my toes while waiting for something to give, like the ground itself had to swallow me up and decide I belonged before I could do anything about it. 

I was even about to skip out on all of Homecoming freshman year, until I got a text from a girl who would become my best friend once I let myself believe she was. At the stadium bathroom, I fanned away sweat inside the collar of my Cornell crewneck — the only gear I had to throw on last minute — and watched other people’s mothers fuss with their school apparel and fix their makeup to look cute for the crowd outside it. It was strange, all the ways they became congruent with me just by my seeing them there. All I could think was I didn’t want these same worries about playing some perceived part to follow me 30 years down the line. I didn’t even want them then. 

At that point, I had already become fatigued from stressing, each weekend, about which top I hated to wear with which pair of jeans I hated so I could have better odds at getting into a party I wouldn’t know what to do at. I didn’t realize while it was happening, but the walks back to North Campus after being turned away by Chi Psi pledges would be what turned the boy in my physics class into a best friend. Before I knew him, we sat side by side in class for months. Twice a week exchanging smiling hellos, sitting in silence for lecture and walking to the doors of Rockefeller together, where I’d decline his offer to study together because I didn’t think I had the character to make his courtesy worth it. 

It’s weird to think that without explicit invitations from the people I’ve been lucky enough to know here, I might’ve been merely a witness to Cornell. I was so preoccupied, subconsciously, with pressure to make the most of my time that I neglected to consider making anything of myself. I was busy foraging for moments around campus like Easter eggs, grabbing at seconds and putting them in a box to have for later. And it’s full now, it’ll make me even more reluctant to pack up and leave this place. But if I set the box with all the good times down, I think I’d weigh roughly the same as when I walked in — my arms sore with nothing to show for it. I always wind up being the roommate who leaves the latest, and the last few days feel so out of place without people filled in around me. Like without something to be a part of, my body is still looking for permission to be myself.

Applying to be a columnist was one of the few times I took a seat here without someone clearing it off for me first. Between my first column and these long-winded last words, I’ve written more that I hate than I’m happy with. Sometimes I scroll through my author page just to punish myself, and I’m surprised my gracious editors decided to publish any of it. I worry I carved out a space that wasn’t meant for me. But maybe, like walking without a destination, it doesn’t have to matter. One of my best times at the Sun office was before I had any business being there, at a social the night before Slope Day my freshman year. I remember feeling drunk on the thrill alone, of existing somewhere I wasn’t invited. 

When I walk for graduation, and walk away from Cornell, I know I’ll have left a lot of ground uncovered just because no one called me to those places. There are so many things I started four years ago that I’m only now seeing to fruition. Friendships that could’ve been fleshed out sooner if I wasn’t so terrified of what was unfamiliar, streets and corners I could know if I’d been brave enough to go alone. I was so focused on the comfort of fitting in — or being taken in — that at first all my time on my own felt like loneliness. But being alone can also feel like being with yourself, and maybe belonging isn’t much more glamorous than just being possessed by a place. College, at its base, is an education, not a self-excavation project. It’s strange to try and belong to a place you came to leave. 

Alecia Wilk (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. This is the final installment of Girl, Uninterrupted.