In the calm and quiet lecture halls and auditoriums, coughing fits exploded in 10-minute intervals. The sneezing and sniffles drowned out the professor’s voice. The unscrewing of water bottle caps echoed in my ears. Crumpled tissues overflowed the dorm trash bins. And before I knew it, I, too, was becoming a musician in this symphony.
A year ago, I promised myself that my last semester at Cornell would be chill. Every time I sat in the physics learning center staring blankly at yet another problem about a skydiver jumping out of a plane, I would calm my inner rage and frustration by assuring myself that I would get a nice, well-deserved break to round off my senior year. I had heard one too many stories about students taking just 12 credits in their last semester, most of which were an assortment of “comically easy” classes that one could “get an A+ in by only attending the final” (I’m quoting directly from RateMyProfessor here). I couldn’t wait to answer the notorious “how is your semester going?” question honestly, and maybe even remember what it felt like to not be perpetually tired. Well, that didn’t work out at all.
I’ve been waking up these past few days with the same strange, rare feeling — I am at Cornell and feeling motivated.
I call it the “beginning-of-the-semester high.” Anyone who is a human and studies at Cornell knows what it is: that feeling at the beginning of every semester when everything still feels possible, productive and hopeful. I’ve seen my friends (and myself) suddenly have the urge to make an omelet for breakfast and spend more than 20 seconds picking out the day’s outfit, then take the longer, more nature-filled route to the first lecture. Time and time again, I hear friends setting goals around this time of the semester, saying things like “I’ll go to class more often” or “I’ll coordinate chores with my housemates” or “I’ll try to cook more this semester.”
It’s strange how there’s a period of time when we suddenly feel like our lives are put together. Maybe it’s the freshness of a new beginning, or the promise of a rare week with no tests, but something in the air is different. Whatever it is, I like it.
It’s a Sunday morning and you’re hiking by Taughannock when suddenly you’re confronted by an eight foot grizzly bear. Before you can form a coherent thought, you find yourself fleeing back towards campus. This instinctual response, aptly named the fight-or-flight response, is triggered by a hormone released in situations of stress or danger: norepinephrine. A lesser known function of norepinephrine is currently being explored by Prof. Christiane Linster, neurobiology and behavior. Linster used behavior, electrophysiology, and computational modeling to research how modulation of norepinephrine affects the olfactory system, the sensory system used for smelling.
I woke up this morning in cold sweat from a dream that I slept through a prelim. Before I had a chance to reassure myself that it was a Monday and it was too early in the day to be sweating, I glanced at the 12 messages that needed responses on my phone, thought of the reading that I had to complete for my 10:10 class, and then felt the pile of laundry that has been sitting at the foot of my bed for the past week. I glanced at the date, only to realize that I had to begin racking my brain for an idea to write about for this column, and then noted the time only to realize that I had a meeting on campus in 15 minutes. As I rushed to try to pop a pimple under my nose and brush my teeth before I headed out the door, it dawned on me: Do I even have time to think? It was a question I asked myself several times last week each time I received a message from the University.
As intelligent, young Ivy League students, we seem to know it all. We know how to tackle complicated economic models, apply thermodynamic analysis and develop successful medical practices. And where our classes lack, our countless pre-professional organizations fill in the gaps to teach us how to capitalize on our assets, develop our career goals, and move up in this world. But when it comes to filling our lives with meaning, finding fulfillment and happiness in the real world, we don’t have a clue. We view happiness as a byproduct of success, rather than the means through which we get there.
I know this probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is reading this, but Cornell can be an incredibly stressful place. Before coming to Cornell, I had heard, like most of you, how intense Cornell could be, but I had never taken the time to really imagine what such an environment might look like. Since getting to Cornell I’ve watched myself and many of my friends become far more stressed than ever before. I’ve heard several people point out that in reality Cornell probably isn’t any more difficult than most other top universities, and much to the chagrin of some of you reading this, I’d have to agree. Yes, Cornell is difficult — we can all agree on that — but the fact of the matter is that a large part of the stress that Cornellians put up with is a result of the culture that we as students have created for ourselves.
Economic pressure has also changed the way students view the very concept of a major. Instead of being simply “your major subject of study,” as Prof. Michael Fontaine, classics, defines the focus, a major has become a means to employment, an expression of a student’s ultimate career ambition.
First, notice that you classmates are asking the professor a lot of questions about the big paper that was due in the middle of the semester. They must be getting a crazy head start, the sycophants. Check Blackboard (it’s probably not due) and realize that the big paper is due in two days. Feel your heart momentarily stop. When exactly did it become October?