Have Diploma, Will Travel (Back to College?)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

It seems like ages ago and just yesterday that I left the place I have called home for the last four years, after being swept up in a rented minivan with my family and all of my belongings for a 10-hour journey back to that other home of mine, in New York. It was then that I recounted a story that a friend told me when she graduated two years ago, that moving away from Oberlin was like having one of her limbs ripped from its socket. Four years ago when I decided to enroll, I knew that Oberlin would be the place I called my college, but I didn't think it would become part of who I am--my identity, that which lies beneath the skin. Now that I've graduated, it is not a stretch to say that even some part of my physiology will remain tied to a little town in Ohio long after I've left.

As you might expect, the Commencement Ceremony was fraught with the kind of emotional outpouring necessitated by the occasion, goodbyes to faculty and professors on the march in, hugs from friends and family on the way out. I left Oberlin without so much fanfare as the joyous sadness of the last four years behind me, of knowing that a chapter of my life has ended, and whatever great experiences the next will bring still requires the proper mourning of the present. My dad likes to remind me of a particular moment, diploma fresh in hand, when I accidently strayed from the path of graduates on our way back to the seats. I mistakenly found myself walking down a row of faces on the outskirts of the perimeter, only some familiar, but all offering beaming smiles and congratulatory words. Eventually, I entered a clearing where a small group of friends had gathered. As President Krislov's final remarks came to a close, I suddenly, and hardly able to hold back, broke down in tears. It was then that it truly hit me that some of the people I care most about, would, after that day, take some time for me to be reunited.

But even at my most nostalgic, it was (and is) cathartic to know that no goodbye is truly goodbye, that I will no doubt find myself in Oberlin again, and that the people I have met and have had an impact on me will surely remerge in my life. I spent the better part of last week thinking about Oberlin in what proved to be an introspective way to occupy my newfound free time. Since then I have been sated with the fact that many people graduate and come to settle in big cities like New York, where thankfully it hasn't been too difficult to keep up contact. For those more distant, there are trips to be had, which have considerable value in their own right--bottling up a friendship until the moment when, after traversing state or national lines, you can finally see a person once again.

A few of my closest friends on Commencement Day (photo courtesy of Hannah Tam-Claiborne).

I feel fortunate that unlike many graduates, I have a decent idea of how life for the next two years will look, even if my time abroad necessarily means more time away from those people here at home. I will be going to China in late August to start my two year stint as an English teacher at a rural university, but not before I finish an intensive summer Chinese language program at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. I was originally slated to leave for China in mid-June and do a language program there before I start teaching, only to switch at the last minute to be a little closer to home for the next two months. I'll inevitably still miss the little things, but I'll be able to be there for what counts (weddings, birthdays, the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest).

The way I see it, the summer is the time that friends remember, and by the time late August rolls around, everyone will be so scattered that it hardly matters whether I am living in middle-of-nowhere Ohio or middle-of-nowhere China. Needless to say, this is also one of those rare times in life when there is a definitive break, where "what's next" is less a given than a process of discovery, and that it will only be a matter of time before friends start to get busy with obligations more indicative of their parents. My hope is that I'll be able to maximize that break, all with the thought that by the time I return from China, we will all be further along the way to beginning the rest of our lives.

Ironically, the start of the "rest of life" for me probably feels different from most of my graduating class, namely because I find myself back at college, and not even the one from which I graduated. Since being at Cornell a little over a week now, and still very much in the college mindset, it is hard not to make comparisons with Oberlin. Even just walking to class in the mornings I feel like I am observing everything with marked scrutiny, whether it's the conversations I have, the food I eat, or the buildings I enter. Of course, in part I am trying to validate my alma mater, but do so in a way that is still appreciative of my new environment. Ivy or not, my own four years' worth of learning and experience mean incalculably much to me. My only intimidation when I arrived was how much that would resonate with the student body here.

Far from a competition, my experiences thus far have been tinged with a certain curiosity--a pervading, "What would life have been like had I gone to Cornell instead?" Of course, I'll never know the answer to that question, but I will do my best in the next two months to see what, if any, conclusions I can surmise. One of the only other colleges that I've spent a significant amount of time (and written anything about) is Tufts University, and even that was a completely different experience. It turns out that for a pair of liberal college campuses, both boasting large feeder populations from elite(ist) NYC high schools, Cornell and Oberlin couldn't be more different.

The first thing that I noticed when I arrived was its size. It was a seasonably cool June morning and I had been walking with my dad for nearly twenty minutes running mundane errands on campus, registering for my summer class, buying the necessary textbooks, and trying to locate a place to eat lunch. The map we were handed at an info booth near the parking lot had been highlighted and marker-streaked and started to resemble something more out of Treasure Island than it did a college campus. Part of the reason for its size, of course, is because Cornell has almost seven times the student population of Oberlin, not to mention the requisite faculty and staff to manage it. With that size comes a great deal more resources, but a loss of intimacy, or at least that which can exist between all of those parties. For those who like big schools, it's great, but I've always preferred the closeness of Oberlin, taking solace in the fact that I could walk nearly anywhere on campus and instantly recognize someone I knew. Here, it would seem miraculous if I saw the same face twice outside of the thirteen students in my Chinese class, not to mention what the campus must look like during the school year.

A bigger campus also translates to more walking, and I have certainly had no shortage of that. Gone are the days when I could wake up a mere ten minutes before class, throw on some clothes, and bike to my first class. Now from my apartment to class is a solid thirty minute walk across uncertain terrain, netting over a mile each way. The good news is that there is a bus on campus that makes travel easy, especially, I imagine, in the winter (which, believe it or not, is considerably worse than Oberlin's). The only caveat is that one has to pay a fare: a buck-fifty per ride. Cornell does offer an unlimited bus pass to its students--what would have cost me $65 for the summer--but I quickly passed up that offer for a $65 summer gym membership instead (yes, you have to pay membership fees to use the fitness centers at Cornell), effectively doubling my exercise quotient. Between class, the library, the gym, and going into town for food and groceries, I would estimate that I walk upwards of four miles a day.

If the consequence of a proclivity for cheapness is doing a lot of walking, it helps at least that Cornell provides a smorgasbord for the eyes. The campus is truly beautiful, and amazingly runs the gamut from complete forest to quaint city, and everything in between. Far from being flat, it's full of trails, hills, valleys, and of course, gorges. Every day I try to take the bad with the good--my apartment sits at the top of a ¼-mile hill that I have to trudge up every afternoon, but I get to walk across a breathtaking suspension bridge on my way to class. Like Oberlin, the town is touted as being very alternative, although even here I would have to say that it feels slightly more mainstream. After all there is a Starbucks and not all of the surrounding restaurants offer vegan options on their menus.

The view from the suspension bridge. When it's warm outside, people congregate to lounge and swim by the rocks way down below.

Also like Oberlin, there seems to exist a certain town-gown divide. Cornell, together with Ithaca College, make up roughly half of the population of Ithaca, and Cornell owns almost all of the land north of Cascadilla Creek, what would surely be a point of contention for native Ithacans if not for the fact that most of them are employed by the college in some capacity. I have heard from Oberlin friends who live in Ithaca that many people in the town don't venture out to Cornell's campus much, and I can hardly fault them. I would like to investigate the kinds of initiatives (if any) Cornell has to try to bridge that divide, in the way that Oberlin has with the Bonner Center for Service and Learning and the Office of Environmental Sustainability, to name a few.

What I probably miss most about Oberlin though is the extensive network of co-ops. It took me four days before I eventually broke down and bought the cheapest one-subject notebook I could find at the Cornell store, at a price that, had I still been at Oberlin, would have left me enough money for at least eight notebooks at the Recycled Products Co-op and potentially infinitely more at the Free Store (located in the basement of Asia House). With the lack of dining co-ops, I have been reluctant to buy groceries at abusive individual-serving-size retail prices, not to mention do all of the cooking and cleaning myself. There is something to be said about making a meal that other people can enjoy and take part in, but in the meantime, I will have to be content with the decent, but over-priced fare at college cafés and the humble dinners I cook for myself in my apartment.

The campus was a melange of colors and textures during Alumni Weekend.

All-in-all, this summer at Cornell is shaping up to be a very nice middle ground between the somewhat polar extremes of being at home in New York and a teacher in China. I am far enough away to miss friends and have to fend for myself, but not so impossibly far that I'm unable to visit home a few weekends during the summer. I am cooking a lot of meals on my own, yet also have the opportunity to go into town to eat. I'm studying and speaking Chinese seven hours a day, but I still get to use my native tongue when I talk to friends outside of class. I am meeting a lot of new people, though many still share a considerable degree in common with me. Living in Cornell and surrounding Ithaca for the first time has given me the opportunity to explore, but since Cornell is a college, it still affords me certain familiar amenities (gym, classrooms, libraries, etc.). I am both coping with large degrees of introspectiveness and an overwhelming amount of things to do. The mechanics are the same, but everything about the process feels different.

This past weekend was Alumni Weekend at Cornell, which unlike at Oberlin, is held two weeks after Commencement. Walking around made me miss Oberlin all the more, seeing excited parents and their children, twenty-something couples, and more than a handful of grandparents, all sporting oversized nametags and shopping bags full of college swag. Age notwithstanding, I couldn't help but notice that they looked a lot like me, wide-eyed and slightly overwhelmed, exploring what must have felt familiar and yet strangely new all at once. It helped to strengthen my case for when I eventually sidled over to one of the many buffet tables, casually including myself among the ranks of recent alums, albeit of another place.

Where I hope to be in fifty years.

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