At a Personal Crossroads, a Visit to Ithaca Focused My Mind

The first time I went to Ithaca, I was terrified. Fresh off of my junior year of high school, I was about to spend the next six weeks in a summer program, living and studying at the university I had always dreamed of attending.

The rolling hills covered in bright green trees seemed at once familiar and completely foreign. My parents, Cornellians themselves, were excited to show my siblings and me the place where they met. I took a photo of them in front of the Johnson Museum of Art, where they went on their first date, and I experienced the magic of the Arts Quad for the first time.

They showed us the Nines and Souvlaki House in Collegetown, their old Greek houses (Sigma Delta Tau and Kappa Sigma), and where the U-Halls they lived in as freshmen used to be. They moved me into a single in Balch Hall, where I got a taste of what it might be like to be a student at Cornell.

Summers are quiet in Ithaca, but beautiful. My friends and I managed to figure out how to get downtown and to the Ithaca Mall—but being 17 and without cars, we spent most of our time on campus.

We were determined to explore as much of Cornell’s 2,300 acres as we could—even if it took all summer.

I found myself back in Ithaca the following August, this time as a full-fledged member of the Class of 2015.

The four years I spent there began with a circle of freshmen outside Court-Kay-Bauer Hall and ended with a final walk through the Botanic Gardens and a farewell meal with my family in my apartment on Eddy Street.

I had no plans to return—until a friend of mine mentioned that she had always wanted to hike in the Finger Lakes. Of course, I knew exactly where to go.

Finally, in August 2022, I made my way back up Route 17—with a mandatory stop at the Roscoe Diner—and returned to the Hill. But what I discovered was so much more.

My traveling companion was not a Cornell alum, so we focused on the city itself. I checked off a lot of Ithaca bucket list items I had never done before: hiking Buttermilk Falls State Park, visiting the Farmers Market, and eating at Moosewood Restaurant.

We stayed in a cabin, and at night we sat around a campfire and enjoyed the stars. I went back over to Seneca Lake and took a trail ride at one of my favorite stables, where the owner accurately described city folk like me (I have spent most of my post-college years in NYC) as people who “trip over quarters to pick up pennies.”

In a busy city like New York, it is all too easy to spend so much time looking for the next big thing that you fail to see the opportunities that are right in front of you.

The trip happened when I was at a crossroads, with uncertainty over both my career and my living situation hanging over me. But that weekend grounded me in a way I didn’t expect, and I returned to the city refreshed and ready for the next chapter of my life.

In Homer’s Odyssey, which I read as an English major, Odysseus finds himself on a long and tumultuous journey that takes him far from his home in ancient Ithaca. For the 20 years that he wanders, Ithaca remains his North Star, the constant in the chaos.

At least it didn’t take me 20 years to get back.

Ariel Cooper ’15 dreamed of attending Cornell since she was five years old. She is the daughter of Kenneth Cooper ’86 and Susan Rosenberg Cooper ’87 and the sister of Rachel Cooper Ghalchi ’17. She lives in NYC, where she is senior manager of newsletter operations at Insider. Outside of work you will find her riding horses, crafting, or volunteering with Muddy Paws Rescue.

Read the story in Cornellians.


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Person in front of a pool of water surrounded by stone banks
Provided Ariel Cooper '15 at Buttermilk Falls in summer 2022