By Elise Cording
Alternate universe. Summer camp. Station on the moon. These are all words I’ve either heard or used myself to describe the strange world encompassing a little more than one square mile: Cornell.
A few months ago, I moved cross-country from California to New York, but I didn’t move fully. I left half of my personal belongings, all of my family, and a sense of identity in California, all of which await my return for a few months a year. I live in Ithaca now—or so I try to convince myself.
At a trip to the bank back in California over winter break, the bank teller asks me to write down where I live. I am obviously torn. He clarifies: the address where you sleep at night.
I sleep many more nights in Ithaca now than I do back at home, but I can’t say I fully live here. Life here is still tinged with a surreal quality, a bit fuzzy around the edges. Out of context from what I’ve always known, this unfamiliar life often finds me alone, generally lost in the midst of it all, holding onto a few scraps of my identity in order to retain some sense of bearing.
I’ve come to believe I now live two lives. One life is the semi-dream world I travel through in sleep-filled and sleepless stupor, uncertain of true reality most of the time because of the drastic unfamiliarity and lack of perspective necessary to place myself within it. The other life waits for me on the opposite coast—an old, sturdy, comfortable pair of shoes, real as can be, that upon return I can simply slip back on…for now.
Growing happens fast these days. I feel the growing pains. My friend Lauren Smith, who graduated from Cornell last year, says the challenge has always been being her developed self when she goes back home. Some say college is the time when you finally “find yourself.” But when the occasion comes a few times a year to return to that other life, falling back into old habits is as easy as sliding into those old, broken-in shoes, even if they don’t fit the same way anymore. Better hold on to that mature, intellectual self you found in college before it falls away while you’re asleep in your childhood bed.
I still don’t know why, but as soon as the plane touches the ground in California, I feel like myself again. Maybe it’s just my old self, the “me” that drove through the hills and down the streets that trigger so many memories. That’s the self I know well. I immediately breathe easier when the plane lands me into that life I know; even the air smells familiar. I find my identity in home. But across the country at Cornell, there is nothing outside of myself to remind me of where I’ve been and who I am because of my past. Here, smothered by newness, it’s almost like starting over. People, surroundings, beliefs, and life-attitudes are all brand new. Even the grocery stores don’t show me any mercy—seriously, what’s a “Wegmans?”
At home, elderly couples strolling through my neighborhood and kids chasing after dogs in their front yards help ground me in reality. Seeing people in different walks of life reminds me that the world is so much more than just me. But while living in a bubble full of college students, it’s hard to see the other side. It becomes difficult to remember what life is like outside our isolated little world—what it might be like to be a middle-aged or elderly adult who’s not a professor, or a kid who’s at school for half a day but then comes home to her family. “Seeing a baby on campus is weird,” Lauren told me—a thought every one of us has probably had. My friend Dakota Bragato, a first-year student like myself, describes the unfamiliar feeling as the result of a lack of the full spectrum of life.
I often long for that spectrum of life while I’m trying to put my life within our square-mile bubble into perspective, finding myself listening to my parents’ music just to feel like I can experience more culture than just these college students, this time, and this place. But there is a unique culture here, and as alien as it feels to me right now, many people find their place inside it. It’s an alternate universe, but one full of brilliant minds. It’s summer camp—quickly turning into winter camp—where we get to have sleepovers with our friends every night. For city folk, it’s as isolated as a station on the moon; but hey, at least we’ve got the planet all to ourselves.
With three more years to get used to this place, I might be able to “push the boundaries of what I’m capable of,” like Lauren says living at Cornell helped her to do, and forge my two separate lives into one. I may be able to redefine my identity, create a new home for myself, and not feel like a liar when I tell the banker I live in Ithaca. But for now, I just sleep here at night.