Beginning’s End – Dear Cornell Freshman

My semester ended with both a whimper (classes) and a bang (slope day), so I suppose I hit all of the right notes. Now we begin the slow march towards the finish line, with little to occupy our days but procrastinating on studying and spending time with friends before they leave campus. More bitter than sweet, at this point.

It seems that the recollective bug has bitten many seniors this spring – I was asked by a good friend of mine (and future roommate?? TBD) if I would write a short piece addressing both myself of four years ago, and the incoming class of Cornell Freshmen. The goal is to let them know what they’re in for and to put them in the right mindset for what lies ahead. Below is my fictional time traveling letter, titled “They go too fast”.

Dear Freshman Michael,

Welcome to the fastest, most stressful and most exhilarating four years of your life. Four years may seem like forever when you first arrive on campus. Now that I’m standing on the finish line, trust me it goes by all too quickly. You owe it yourself to get the most out of every day, because you don’t get any of them back.

There’s a lot I could say in terms of advice. What I did and didn’t do, what I regret and what I don’t regret. As I’ve written and re-written this letter, all of it sounds preachy and very anecdotal. I’m still going to give opinions on my time here, but take it all with a grain of salt. This is a bit of my story, and yours will certainly be different.

You’ll have some up days and some down days. Sometimes you’ll coast to a good grade in a class, while in others you’ll work harder than you thought possible just to get the mean, or worse. Some weekends you will want to party across campus, soles sticky with beer residue, while others you’ll live in libraries and make the Olin to Uris 2AM transfer. More than anything else, college is made up of choices that shape your time here. Some are small, some big, some smart and others fun. But you control every single one. Not your parents, not your friends, not significant other. Only you.

If I had to sell Cornell to prospective students based on a single tag line, I’d go with “the place for intelligent and dedicated students who don’t care to prove to you exactly how intelligent and dedicated they are.” It’s a bit wordy (note to self – edit this), but it still sums up the overall attitude on campus. Just about everyone you meet on campus is secretly absolutely brilliant. More importantly, no one is just skating by. The more dedicated the person, the harder they are working, because they want to accomplish even more in their four years. Cornell encourages students to learn as much as possible, to make an impact on campus, and to squeeze every drop out of every day, because to do less would be a waste of your time here. You define your own success. You never need to prove that you deserve your spot more than the person next to you.    

It’s your undergraduate career. Strive to defeat every challenge and exceed every expectation that you set for yourself. However, know that it’s ok to strike out after giving something your all. There will be times that you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and that you may pass out from mental exhaustion simply from working too hard. You know what? That’s okay. College teaches you more than the material that makes up your major, it teaches you resilience. Cornell will throw more at you than you can possibly handle. Part of life, the part you get to learn here, is how to keep on pushing through the most stressful of weeks. While working as hard as you can to produce top quality work, don’t evaluate yourself too strongly by the results. You are not a bad test score, or a poorly researched philosophy paper written the night before it is due. You are the optimistic and intelligent student who acknowledges that failure, makes amends and turns that grade into a distant memory.

Cornell is your next great challenge, and one you can’t handle alone. The fastest way to make your life a living hell is to view your classmates and friends as opponents, not to be trusted with tiny grade-boosting details. I urge you, though this may go against your natural future-Ivy-leaguer inclination, to view your classmates as teammates, working together as fully as you can (of course respecting the academic integrity guidelines). Remember that this is a place for staggeringly intelligent yet humble people. You never know which random friend will be the one to pull you through Linear Algebra. More importantly, however, trust your friends enough to truly talk to them. No real friend of yours wants you to suffer in silence. When you are at your weakest, have the strength to ask for help. When it comes your turn, be there for your friends. Give them a patient ear, a steady shoulder, and non-judgmental advice. Together, there is nothing you cannot accomplish.

One part of college that comes as a shock to some is how quickly your social scene may change. An extra-large shift comes after freshman year, as your tightest-knit group of friends suddenly dissipates across North Campus, West Campus, and Collegetown. It’s easy to view this as downside of college or a trial to overcome. You can attempt to keep track of everyone you meet during your four years, but I would urge you in the opposite direction. Focus on making lifelong friends, not simply collecting acquaintances. It could be the friends you meet on your freshman floor, but it could be an entirely different group. Of course it is important to have less serious friends to have a good time with, but as you near the end of your time here, the ones that really count will be the ones you’ll stay in touch with for the rest of your life. So long as you treat everyone you meet with respect and actively push newly formed friendships beyond their superficial beginnings, I have no doubt that you will meet lifelong friends during your time here.

In the end, I would give anything to be in your position once again. I survived the classes, I partied hard, and I got the job, but I would gladly throw that all up in the air again to do it all over.  As the Glee Club sometimes sings, “But oh, to be twenty, and back at Cornell.”

Holy shit, you’re in for a wild ride.

P.S. Just go with Shnik. People here will flip for it, and the pun opportunities are endless.


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