It’s safe to say that there has always been a gap between the person I am and the person I want to be. I believe most people feel this way too. I am at point A, and I want to be at point B. There have always been guidelines on how to close this ‘gap’, but following those guidelines hasn’t helped me much.
But, over the past year, my experiences at Cornell have helped me bridge this gap in a big, big way.
It definitely isn’t a good idea to try to put all my thoughts and things I’ve learnt into one single blog post. Instead, I do want to try to outline how my time in Ithaca helped me bridge this gap.
It all starts back in the Fall of 2019. Having just finished my undergraduate degree, I was very optimistic about having a good time at Cornell. Whenever I asked people for advice, they told me to expect things to be different from my undergrad experience. “Things will be tougher, and you’re going to have to work harder than you ever have before” was the gist of all the advice I received. Although I was expecting things to be different, it was during the 3-day orientation that I realized what everyone meant. Sitting in a room of 120+ incredibly intelligent people whose resumés make yours look like a piece of scrap paper can be a humbling experience. I vividly remember finishing up orientation and preparing for my first week of classes. I was preparing to the best of my abilities, but a part of my head couldn’t stop thinking that I didn’t belong among this group of students. My work was not at the level that everyone else’s was at, and I had little hope of surviving among such competition. The lowest point of this feeling was when I spoke to some of my friends and family about a very very real possibility that I may not graduate. I was positive that my undergraduate experience hadn’t prepared me for this, and the next year would be all downhill. All this before the first week of classes had even begun. Great start.
Luckily, I wasn’t right (at least not a 100% right).
As classes began, I stumbled across this TED talk, and I began to try to convince myself that I belonged, and that I would be okay. I was going to fake it till I made it. I would be lying if I said I believed myself, but hey, I had to try. In another fortunate coincidence, one of my professors spoke to the entire class about imposter syndrome early on in the semester. He shared his story of feeling the same way back when he had started teaching. This 1-2 combo (TED talk + professor’s talk) made me consider the possibility that I might have been overreacting. So, I decided that no matter whether I ‘belonged’ among this group of people or not, I would try my best. If I was going to go down, I would go down swinging.
The first month of classes went by in a flash. The ‘I would go down swinging’ mindset was easy to adopt, but the actual work was demanding. The advice I had received was all true. Things were different, more difficult, and I had to work harder than ever to keep up. Sure, the content wasn’t the easiest, but it wasn’t the reason why things seemed difficult. The major part of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t used to the workload. Things were new. As the work piled on, I began to stop thinking I was a fraud and an imposter and focused on the work.
Midway through the semester, I realized that I no longer felt like an imposter. I had learnt so much over the first half of Fall ‘19: my mindset switched from a competitive one to a collaborative one. There was something to learn from everyone. I started being honest with myself about what I knew and what I didn’t (as opposed to lying to myself that I knew things to make myself feel better). This helped me actually make progress in the right places. ‘I don’t know’ is a fine answer, but don’t let it end there. I learnt how to be more efficient, more intentional, more thorough, and more concise (says the person who wrote a 923874 word blog post). I wrapped up my first semester and things felt great. I did much better than I had first expected, and I felt like I belonged.
‘I don’t know’ is a fine answer, but don’t let it end there.
Fast forward to the new year and the beginning of Spring 2020. I felt great, I began to use all the skills I had picked up during the Fall to make the Spring semester easier. I was hitting my stride. I wasn’t new to the game anymore, and although things were intense, they were always under control. About 3 months into the semester, I felt that things would be great and nothing could stop me from a really successful semester. We all thought this year would be great back in March, so you know what’s coming. On the 13th of March, Cornell decided to move to all virtual instruction.
The pandemic changed so much all around the world that it deserves a whole series of posts dedicated to it. All my momentum from earlier on in the semester vanished. Assignments, exams, office hours and lectures were all so different that they needed a whole new approach. Working from home was not trivial either - I needed almost 2-3 weeks before I was able to get into any sort of flow again. I was living off of pantry pasta and boxes and boxes of Wheat Thins (tier S snack). With more time to myself now, I started reading more. My ‘workday’ was no longer the entirety of my day. I had to make sure my body got to see more nutrition than just granola bars and crackers. No longer able to see everyone I usually saw on campus, I started to get more in touch with friends and family back home. Slowly but surely, things were getting better. I was able to meet my deadlines like before, but I was also much more relaxed and happy. The last half of Spring 2020 taught me that no matter how comfortable I was feeling with work, taking care of myself was always going to be more important. I kept hacking away and finished up my semester last week.
I have always associated the end of a semester or academic year with the feeling you get when you walk out of a final exam hall. With no more impending deadlines and celebrations all around, that feeling is one of a kind. This time, though, the end of my semester wasn’t met with celebrations or walking out of an exam hall. It was me hitting ‘upload’ on my last assignment and shutting down my computer. And then realizing that there would be no graduation ceremony. Not ideal.
People tend to remember experiences based on how they end. Although the end of my year at Cornell was quite atypical and anticlimactic, I am determined not to let that define the whole experience. This is basically the entire reason why I chose to write this post. It’s been an eventful year: I’ve learnt more than I could have asked for, and I’ve grown in ways I did not think were possible. It may be an anticlimactic ending, but it’s a happy one nonetheless.
Those two pictures are from my first and last day at Cornell. Sure, they look like ordinary pictures, but when I look at them all I notice is the change that happened over the year. Go Big Red!
Thanks to Rashi Singh for her editorial feedback!