At the end of the first week of classes this semester, I checked off another Cornell first: climbing the clocktower and listening to a chimes concert from the top.
It may seem that my inaugural journey up the infamous 161 steps is long overdue: I just began my senior year, and my time in college is ticking rapidly to an end. Yet, as you might imagine, the last three years have provided limited opportunities to scale McGraw’s winding stairway. It has been closed for most of my time on campus, a reminder of the countless ways that the recent Cornell experience has differed from a non-pandemic one.
Climbing the clocktower was well worth the (slightly arduous, if that tells you anything about either the ascent or my lung capacity) trip up. Hearing the campus soundtrack from mere feet away is invigorating, and the view of Ithaca looks like a postcard.
This new perspective of campus from above was mirrored by the similarly surreal feeling of being a senior, looking out from the metaphorical pinnacle of my college career.
Reaching one’s final year must be intimidating in the best of times, but it is downright jarring without the natural build-up of the preceding semesters. For seniors, particularly those who were away from campus last semester like myself, this fall marks a return to a college life that we haven’t seen in years. And for everyone else, it is likely the first mostly ‘normal’ semester of college you have ever had.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been reminded both of how far I have come during my time at Cornell but also how peculiar it is to near the endpoint of a journey which I feel, in some ways, barely started. Although I have learned more than I could have ever imagined over the last several years, I haven’t quite reached the state of seasoned mastery I expected during my final year of college.
As I readjust to being unmasked in classes and using Willard Straight Hall’s reading room to study rather than get my nose swabbed, it’s hard not to wonder what would have been if two and a half years of my college experience had not been carved away, muffled under the blanket of ‘unprecedented times.’ Are my Ithacalves weaker from fewer climbs up the slope? Have I built less character by spending many frigid days on Zoom rather than tramping to class through feet of snow? Did I miss out on a crucial part of the Cornell experience by limiting my intake of 3 a.m. Nasty’s calzones? Or, did I just do my stomach a favor?
On a more serious note, I can’t help but think about how much more I might have learned and grown — academically, socially and personally — if given a full four years in a traditional college environment. How many connections did I miss out on with classmates and professors in the aimless moments of packing up at the end of a lecture? Would I have found my communities on campus more quickly if I wasn’t searching for them on a computer screen?
The pragmatist in me recognizes that there is little use in lamenting what was lost, particularly when the loss was so universal. More importantly, it is absurd to talk about missing out on a few calzones when compared to the scale of individual and global tragedy sustained over the last several years.
Still, as we stand on the threshold between the university bubble and ‘real life,’ I have found that many of my upperclassman friends and I aren’t sure how to register this missing piece of our youth. While no one is to blame for the fact that our college experience coincided with a worldwide catastrophe, our time in college has not been normal — a laughably obvious statement, perhaps, but one worth acknowledging nevertheless.
But, what’s the takeaway? I can’t turn back into the eighteen-year-old who lived on North Campus and thought that RPCC brunches were the epitome of fine dining (they were) — and frankly, I wouldn’t want to. What value, then, is there in confronting something that cannot be changed?
For me, it has been a way of beginning to contend with the reality of graduating after spending a formative period of my young adulthood in socially-distanced limbo. Although I’ve already established that I am anything but a wizened elder, I will leave you with two conclusions I have come to for now.
First, it’s okay for things to feel unfinished or undone. Maybe, like me, there are campus traditions you have yet to experience, opportunities that you feel you missed out on, or realizations you wish you had come to earlier: a major you should have changed a year ago, a friendship or relationship you stayed locked in too long, a club you didn’t join. If you graduated high school during the pandemic, perhaps you never got the closure you hoped for before being hurtled into the hills of upstate New York.
Young adulthood and college are rarely easy; no one prepared us for the added challenge of global turmoil. If the last few years felt stagnant or unfulfilling, I would encourage you not to blame yourself for not doing more.
But second, as we enter what will hopefully be a year of relative normalcy, make the most of it. Don’t be afraid to make changes or try new things. For me, this means taking an English class for the first time since freshman year and hopefully making it to a Bread Club meeting sometime.
Notably, I believe that making the most of it does not mean you should try to do everything. Especially if you are an underclassman, savor the chance to try things out little by little. But, do take a moment to appreciate the opportunities that may not have been available over the last several years: those mindlessly fruitful conversations at the end of class, getting to wander through the chaos of ClubFest instead of clicking into it online, the ability to enjoy a gourmet Okenshields meal with friends rather than alone from a takeout box.
And, whether you are a freshman or a senior, take twenty minutes sometime to listen to a chimes concert from the top of the clocktower if you can. The view from above is worth the climb.
Lia Sokol (she/her) is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. My So-kolled Life runs every other Sunday this semester.