Green Cities and Sustainable Futures
Summer College 2015
Hello! My name is Annie and I'm a rising senior from Montvale, NJ where I run track and serve as captain of the cross-country team. Running is my meditation and my therapy, the only thing that keeps me sane, well saner, as I try to balance my many conflicting passions. On one hand I'm a dedicated student with a strong perfectionist streak and a love of intellectual discovery, but I'm also a girl whose heart yearns to escape to the mountains. Whether it be backpacking through the Sierras, moonlit skiing expeditions in Vermont woods, or climbing 12,000 ft. peaks for sunrise, it is the thrilling challenge and discomfort of the great outdoors that makes me feel most alive. I will be taking Green Cities and Sustainable Futures at Cornell and I am excited to explore the ways in which our growing population can live sustainably on this beautiful planet.
It's one o'clock on Friday afternoon, and I feel like I have just surfaced for the first time in a week. I'm sitting on the grass outside of Kennedy Hall eating lunch and soaking up the sun. Around me my Green Cities classmates are lounging, appropriately enough, on the grass-covered mound that has been shaped into a bench. The relief in the air is tangible; you can almost see our chests deflating as we finally relax.
We expected to be challenged, that's why we are here, but none of us were prepared for the intellectual whirlwind we have been swept up in. For the past five days, I have spent up to six hours a day pouring over pages and pages of reading material covering everything from the relationships of ancient civilizations with the natural world, to Frederick Law Olmsted and the American Park Movement. Then two or three more hours each night, seated at my desk, thinking and writing, struggling not only to interpret and make sense of the fascinating theories I've been exposed to, but to build off them, to go deeper, and develop my own novel ideas. It's mentally exhausting, and yet I feel invigorated.
For nine months of the year I sit in school. I spend countless hours studying and memorizing and even, occasionally, thinking. Slowly the stress and pressure get to me and I wonder where that love of learning, that natural curiosity that used to fuel me, has gone. Then I come to Cornell. I'm working ridiculously hard, I'm exhausted, and yet, when I least expect to, I find it; all over campus in the secluded nooks and corners which I seek out to study, I experience the pure joy of ideas, those beautiful moments when thoughts seem to appear from nowhere and it all makes sense, or at least begins to. For the first time in too long, I'm really learning. It's hard work but incredibly rewarding.
However it's nice to come up for air too. So just a few hours after our picnic, our Green Cities crew is in a completely different environment. Gone are books and reflections, banished actually; the word work does not exist for the afternoon. Instead we find ourselves surrounded by the immense natural beauty of Ithaca. Specifically Robert Treman State Park where the thundering force of the waterfall easily replaces any thoughts of the looming midterm. As we fight against the current to reach the falls, attempting to duck behind the cascade of water only to find there is too much water in the air to breath, I realize that maybe coming up for air was the wrong metaphor. It doesn't matter though, because surrounded by laughing people, newfound friends, plenty of sunshine, and cool water I feel utterly refreshed. That's the magic of Cornell; you will work harder than you ever have before but you will also be able to escape and just have fun in a place of incredible natural beauty.
If I had to pick two things that defined this week they would be the conversations I've had and the places I've discovered. When I first arrived on campus, I knew one person, and I didn't even know he was here until we ran into each other in RPCC. When I walked into the dining hall for meals, or the Donlon formal lounge, it was to rooms full of strangers. I knew that behind every unfamiliar face was a fascinating individual, but the task of uncovering who that person was, was daunting. My interactions with people pretty much followed the same pattern: "Hi! my name is Annie. Where are you from? Oh that's awesome! My cousins live near there," or "wow that sounds so cool. I've never heard of it." These conversations were necessary in laying the groundwork for our shared interests as well as our differences to develop into genuine connections and friendships, but they were superficial, and I found myself craving deeper human interactions.
However in the last week that has changed. I'm still meeting new people everyday, and asking the same questions, but my interactions are now dominated by a different kind of discourse. I've had thought-provoking conversations about gay marriage in the back of an Ithaca cab. I've talked and laughed about childhood memories by the sea, and public radio while watching the sunset from the slope. I've shared deep life discussions with my classmates and TA. Most importantly I've been inspired, questioned and challenged to grow and learn by an incredible community of individuals.
As I've become more comfortable with the people around me, I've become more comfortable with Cornell itself. I'm beginning to feel like I own this place, well at least a stake in it. I know my way around; there are still places to discover, but my desire to explore is no longer hampered by a fear of being out of place. I can take a little while for myself, head down to Beebe Lake to spend some time just sitting quietly on the shore, fireflies blinking behind me, watching the full moon rise out of a layer of clouds. I can wander into the depths of Uris Library, or Mann. Who knew that Cornell had a collection of the Guinness Book of World Records.
And I can venture beyond campus too, passing a beautiful summer afternoon relaxing with friends on the shore of Cayuga Lake, eating fresh fennel and golden raisin bread, local brie, and black raspberries from the Farmers Market. It's a pretty awesome feeling to be able to walk with confidence around one of the greatest universities in the world, and if not to make it my own, at least to make my own place in it.
It's been over a month, now, since I walked across the stage in Kennedy Hall, shook my Professor's hand, and said goodbye to Cornell, at least for now. It's strange looking back at that last morning. As I sat there listening to the different professors congratulate my peers, I was still reeling from the last three weeks, my brain still caught up in a world where every waking minute was filled with thinking about the benefits of green spaces and different ways to create an economy that would value ecosystems and biodiversity rather than destroy them. Just 24 hours earlier, I had been sitting in our windowless classroom in Bradfield Hall, furiously writing. My handwriting becoming less and less legible, as I attempted to finish the hour-and-a-half-long final for Green Cities. As Dr. Young said, and I won't deny, it was a fair test; however the comparison he later made between us attacking our blue books inside, and the two hawks, which were tearing apart some small creature on the picnic table outside, was equally accurate.
That test was worth thirty percent of my grade. Far higher stakes than I had ever experienced in high school. On that morning it all seemed real and unreal at the same time. I was nervous, and relieved, and sad, and, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably add, a little sleep deprived. I had no idea how I'd done in the course, or whether all the hard work was worth it; however I did know I had given my all. As I said final goodbyes to my classmates, TA's and Professor and saw the pride and respect in their eyes, I knew that, at least from my perspective it didn't matter what grade I got, it was all worth it.
I won't pretend Cornell was perfect. On the very first day we were told we would have to work hard. They weren't joking. Trying to cover an entire semester's worth of material in three short weeks is a slightly crazy endeavor. There were times when I wish I could have spent more time getting to know the amazing individuals who I saw in the dining hall, or walking through my dorm. I don't regret the hours I devoted to reading and writing. I loved the material and my desire to get the most out of the class and succeed left me few options, but I do wish that it hadn't come at such a cost to my social life. Not that I didn't make many wonderful friends, but they were almost entirely from my Green Cities course since none of us had much free time outside of class.
In the end, I will miss Cornell far more than I expected. Before I came to Summer College I had pretty much crossed it off my college list as too big and too competitive. But then I came here and began to fall in love with a beauty of the campus, with being able wander for hours in the Plantations and the hiking trails they connect to, with the relaxed vibe of Friday night concerts the Arts Quad, and of course with the incredible sunsets viewed from the slope. I found among the RCA's people who were driven and passionate about their studies but whom I genuinely also enjoyed hanging out with. I will never forget playing ultimate Frisbee in the pouring rain where every change of direction led to an unintentional fifteen foot slide across the soaking grass, or staring up at the rings of Saturn through the giant, old telescope.
I'm still not sure Cornell is the right place for me to go to college, but it, along with all the amazing people whom I met, certainly have left a lasting impact on my life.