I don’t recognize myself right now.
Not in a bad way, it’s just that this person who greets me at the mirror each morning is miles ahead of where I expected her to be, or should I say, where I expected myself to be.
Every semester, I’ve made a habit of checking in with myself with a single question: “Would your freshman year self recognize you?” I don’t know where the question stems from. I don’t know why I continue to ask it semester after semester. Yet, every semester I do, and I can say with certainty that the answer is a strong and resounding “no,” and I’m proud of that.
For reference, freshman year Catherine was someone to know, and some of you did. She was 17, younger than her peers and hyper-aware of it. She was scared of being away from home and alone for the first time in her life. She was so very lost and she hated that.
I think that we can all look back on our first year here and find memories to cringe at and others to look back on with a nostalgic fondness. And while I didn’t bring most of the friends who ran through my early Cornell memories with me to now, I’m grateful for the space they inhabited and thankful to have watched them grow on their own Cornell journeys, even if from afar, through social media posts and waves across Tower road.
My freshman year self couldn’t possibly recognize me now because, well, a lot has changed. Aside from the global pandemic that shaped a huge chunk of my college career and yours, I’m sure, my goals, my definition of success at this very scary institution has done a 360. I wish I could sit here and tell you that she had an ounce of this experience figured out, but she didn’t. I look back at goals that I had for myself and smile — some of them were realized and some of them weren’t, and I think it was all for the better.
Some of my proudest moments at Cornell are ones my freshman self could not have cared less about: my time as a Balch R.A. has to be a highlight of my Cornell career, my time as Candid Cathy and The Sun’s 139th associate editor are other times that I reflect on with nothing but fondness. To think that my social circle would have changed so much from then to now is at once scary and amazing.
If you’ll indulge a washed up senior, please do not rush this process that is your time at Cornell University. It is so far from easy and there are nights that I spent out with friends at parties, nights that we spent in classrooms hunched over books and nights spent on my bedroom floor as they helped me reason through what was stressing me out with tears and hugs. I have some really great memories and some not-so-great memories that will sneak up on me at the least opportune times just to humble me.
This place isn’t built to be “cracked” in a year. For some people, that’s their reality, but for me, it certainly wasn’t and I’m glad. I had the chance to meet myself in so many different contexts from huge wins to painful losses (trust me, I’m not leaving without my fair share of losses). As much as those losses hurt in the moment, I’m grateful for each of them — I left a bit stronger and a bit surer of myself with each one.
I don’t know when I found myself in a place where I felt like I understood why I was here, but I knew that it didn’t come a moment before my sophomore year: when I met the people who I knew would be in my life for a longtime, when I realized my passions and when I joined the organizations that would leave their imprint on my time here. It was the year that I learned that the goalsI had set for myself were supposed to grow and change because I was growing and changing even at that big age.
Like many of you, I had never been in a place that didn’t just click into place after a few weeks: Cornell was my first. But, in all of the clicking and shifting that took place before I found how I fit into Cornell, I also felt parts of myself clicking into place. Never did I think I would be writing a column or living with my friend off campus, both of us bidding farewell to Housing and Residential Life. I couldn’t have imagined applying and going to Cambodia for three weeks with a bunch of strangers and having the time of my life. I couldn’t have imagined agreeing to compet for an editorship at the top of the masthead and win it while finding an amazing friend in my opinion editor. I didn’t foresee a gap year before law school, especially not one spent as a Fulbrighter conducting research in Toronto, or actually becoming passionate about what I was learning in ILR (I called my mom after the first United States labor history lecture to entertain transferring colleges, which she thankfully shut down).
So much of what has made me, me, of what has made Cornell mine, has come out of nowhere and long after my freshman year. If nothing, Cornell has taught me patience and its worth. It taught me to wait for your best friend to sit next to you in ILRLR 4033: Disability Law, taught by your future honors thesis advisor and expect to never get rid of her (not that you’d ever try to). It taught me that it’s okay to shed skins and to shed people, that it doesn’t have to be messy and that we can root for each other from afar. It taught me to take risks, and while some won’t pan out, the ones that do, really do. It taught me how a friend picking you up from your room to drag you to central campus and study on a Tuesday night could easily become a joyful core memory. It taught me that the term “roommate” means so much more than the person I share an apartment with.
I encountered mentors, a Balch sisterhood, a Sunnie family, a Black Ivy pledge class and amazing friends — all of whom continue to support me and who I enthusiastically root for on the sidelines, grateful to be a witness to their success as they win awards, get into law school and med school, find jobs and share themselves with a world that can only benefit from them.
I love talking to my family about my time here, because they (especially my mom) have seen it all. They sat with me as I went in circles for hours debating summer plans, class schedules and post graduation plans. They know where I’ve come from and where I plan on heading. They’re the one thing about my Cornell experience that has been constant, and I wouldn’t want it any other way, even when their advice isn’t what I want to hear.
I don’t recognize myself, and that is one of my biggest accomplishments over these past four years. Though it wasn’t instantaneous and Cornell certainly made me wait for it to all make sense, I’m grateful for all the memories, the classes, the people and the experiences. And while I’ll miss it, I think I’m ready for what’s next, I’m ready to meet who I’m going to be and I’m more than willing to wait for her.
Catherine St. Hilaire (she/her) is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected] She previously served as associate editor of the 139th board. This is the final installment of her column Candid Cathy.