Timeout: students and young alumni reflect on life on pause

How are Cornell seniors and new graduates coping with life on pause? We reached out to four current seniors and four recent graduates to find out. Here are their candid responses to our questions. Spoiler alert: in spite of the challenges, they remain hopeful. From the pantry, to painting, to gardening, game nights, and online communities, these young Cornellians are finding new sources of inspiration in everyday life. They are grateful for their families and for their Cornell connections. And they are using this timeout as an opportunity for deeper inner reflection.

Tell us about your day now. Where are you, and what are you doing?

Sergey Smirnov ’20

“I am still in Ithaca, quarantining with my roommates in Collegetown. Coronavirus has improved my life in unexpected ways: I’ve been playing soccer almost every single day, and it’s definitely the #1 reason my sanity hasn’t completely deserted me. We’ve gone from just kicking the ball around to planning and integrating specific sprinting, passing, and volleying drills into our workout.

Sergey Smirnov sitting in empty Temple of Zeus
Sergey Smirnov ’20 at the Temple of Zeus, which is empty while campus is closed

Additionally, I have actually learned how to cook. This has long been on the top of my to-do list, at the very least to assuage my nervous mother. I have found it incredibly satisfying—being able to connect to my culture in a new way and also being able to craft something delicious of my own. I made salat olivie, a potato salad that every Russian knows by heart, and kotletas, which are beef patties. I went with a Balkan twist based on a recipe I found, so mine were made out of lamb and had a ton of different peppers and spices in them. And potatoes. Lots and lots of potatoes. It has been great being able to talk to my mother more—since I see her only on breaks and definitely don’t usually call her as much as she would like me to.

With pre-recorded lectures, the ability to speed up lectures when I’m confident about the material, or pause and re-watch a certain section, has been invaluable. I feel like I’m learning much more efficiently now than before, though I do miss the ability to ask questions, human interaction, and the walk to Goldwin Smith.”

What hobbies have you picked up during the past few months?

Samuel Barnett ’19

“I’ve found lots of time for woodworking, playing music, hiking, catching up with friends (virtually), and spending time with family—which are some of my favorite things to do. Moving back into my parents’ house from my apartment in Washington, DC, comes with the added benefit of being able to spend many hours in my dad’s wood shop, where I’ve been making gifts for friends.

Hands guiding wood through a table saw
Samuel Barnett is spending time in his father's woodshop, making gifts for family and friends.

I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of striking a healthy balance in my adult life—making sure to cut out appropriate time for work, family, friends, and myself. As a recent grad, it’s normally very easy to throw all my energy into work, because I don’t have many other responsibilities. But that often leads me to forget to care for myself and the people who mean a lot to me. I’m not even a year out of college yet, having graduated last May, but this experience has allowed for an important one-year check-in about how I’m doing in my life and what I want to improve. When things return back to normal, I’d like to find more time throughout the week to pursue the time-intensive hobbies that bring me so much joy—things like music, woodworking, and being outdoors.”

What are you doing for fun?

Reed Rosenberg ’20

“I’m doing my best to schedule movie and virtual game nights with my roommates, and with family and friends who are far away. Watching shows, documentaries, and movies has helped distract me from the onslaught of bad news and stress inherent to the time we’re living in. In particular, I’ve appreciated the shows and movies that focus on entirely separate, but still relevant sociopolitical issues. For example, the complex social justice issues depicted in The People vs. OJ Simpson and the treatment of workers in American Factory have helped take my mind off of COVID-19, while not entirely shutting myself off. To me, they’ve felt like a nice balance between escapism and staying informed about the world’s problems—just problems that aren’t the pandemic.

Man smiling in front of a waterfall
Reed Rosenberg '20 at Taughannock Falls

I’ve also been trying to explore non-screen activities and can definitely say I’ve worked on more puzzles and played more board games in the last month than I have since I was a little kid. Finding new ways to connect and reconnect with the people in my life has become important to me in a whole new way, and I hope that’s something I’ll hold onto when all of this is over. I’ve seen more Ithaca sunsets from the slope in the past few weeks than I have in the rest of my time at Cornell.”

What are the biggest challenges you’re facing?

Oksana Bihun ’19

“I’ve found that what I’ve been struggling with most in this time is maintaining my mental and emotional well-being. My regular routine is no longer possible, so I’ve been trying to re-structure my days around what may be best for me at a given time. As someone who uses her Google calendar to schedule plans five months out, this has been a very challenging endeavor. Every day feels like I’m getting acquainted with myself all over again. Monday might be the day that I need to go run seven miles, while Tuesday has me redecorating my entire room and ordering takeout. It’s been a unique process of trial and error, learning how to recognize my different needs and how to get creative in catering to them. While this has been difficult at times, I’ve also recognized the silver lining in it. I have a chance to refamiliarize myself with what I like, dislike, need, want, and enjoy. I’m hoping that this self-reflection continues past this period of adjustment, and that I’ll remember to conduct internal checks more regularly.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that Cornell is once again playing an important role in my life. The Cornell community has connected me with students who are struggling to find job and internship opportunities under the circumstances, which has reminded me how strong and resilient our students can be. Everyone I’ve spoken to is still driven by ambition and eagerness to learn; they ask thoughtful questions and are grateful for any bit of advice you can offer. Connecting with these students has reminded me that so much of what I have, I owe to the wonderful mentors and fellow students I got to know at Cornell.
I’m also grateful for all my Cornell friends, who have served as constant and lovely distractions over the past few weeks. The weekly virtual happy hours, birthday parties, and updates with my closest friends and former classmates are not only appreciated, but necessary.”

How have your plans for the coming year changed?

Sofia Boucher ’19

“Since being furloughed from my job as an Immigration Specialist in NYC, evacuating the city, quarantining for two weeks, and now residing in Ithaca, my day-to-day life has changed drastically. A typical workday in NYC involved waking up at 6:00 a.m., going to the gym, sitting at a desk for an eight-hour workday, studying for the LSAT after work at the NYC Cornell Club, and then heading back to my apartment. I was feeling more like a hamster on a wheel than a young adult living my dreams in the Big Apple.

My plans for the coming year have been nothing short of overhauled, as I no longer have work or housing. But the pandemic has released me from the grind. I get to sleep in, FaceTime my friends, work out when and how I feel like it, read, watch TV shows and documentaries, attend webinars, and relax. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was. I feel so lucky to be living in an apartment back at Cornell with my boyfriend and his roommates and to have the space and time to reconnect with myself and reevaluate what I need to be happy and fulfilled. Experiencing communal grieving, and giving myself and my routine grace, have been a blessing.

The network I have at Cornell has been a foundation to fall back on as my life has changed as a result of the pandemic. I took one of the last Cornell Campus-to-Campus buses as my evacuation vehicle out of NYC. I am living with current Cornell students, FaceTiming with Cornell friends and their families around the country, attending Cornell webinars, and being supported by Cornell alumni. Being able to come back to Cornell as a safe haven and knowing that I can find camaraderie amongst the Cornell community have been incredibly comforting during this time.”

How has the Cornell community helped you?

Girisha Arora ’20

“I’ve felt really supported by the Cornell community these last few weeks. It was great to know that there was a devoted Crisis Manager to help people who were quarantined, and all the professors have been extremely accommodating during this shift to online instruction. One of my friends, Akanksha Jain ’20, has put together a LinkedIn group of Cornell international alumni, so that people who need help, and who may have lost their upcoming jobs and internships, have a network to reach out to. People have been sharing job opportunities, as well as resources about which companies are still hiring internationals during this time. As of April 20, there are 116 members.

It’s very heartening to see everyone come together to help each other in such a crisis. These past few months have taught me to be grateful for all that I have, and have allowed me to be more in touch with my parents and friends back in India, who are also in lockdown. I’m able to get through this time by appreciating the small joys of life. Snow in Ithaca in April is not one of them, though!”

What is helping you get through this time?

Colesy Cotter ’20

“I’ve been baking a LOT (follow me @bakingwithcbc). My grandmother was a chef, and I’ve been baking as long as I can remember. For the first time, I’ve had the chance to try sourdough bread (I’m currently on attempt #3), croissants, brioche, and other time-consuming recipes. I’ve also learned how to make and preserve my own jam!

Woman displays baked goods
Colesy Cotter '20 with a few of the things she’s baked in the past week.
I also dug up all our old arts and crafts materials and started painting. I’ve never considered myself to be a particularly creative or artistically talented person, but I’ve had so much fun trying to recreate my favorites. Our kitchen table is covered with my attempts at Matisse’s coral cutout prints.

My friend Claire Norman ’22 wrote me a letter a few weeks ago, and it inspired me to write letters to everyone I could possibly think of and use all the old postcards I’ve collected over the years. This is another way I’ve been able to connect with close friends and family that I can’t be with right now.
When I first got home, I tried to stay busy every second of the day so I wouldn’t think about why I’m home. I’m still trying to make the most of being stuck at home, but I think I’ve finally realized this isn’t a vacation, and to exercise patience with my friends, my family, and myself. I know how lucky I am to be safe and at home right now, and I keep telling myself I’ll never have this much time again. Yet, it’s hard to be productive sometimes. I still have days when I don’t change out of my pajamas, and I feel overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the future and all of the time I lost with my best friends in Ithaca.”

What life lessons have you learned during this timeout?

Dustin Liu ’19

“For the first time in a long time, our whole family is under one roof. This is the longest we have all been together since I graduated from high school. It is heartwarming to share meals and late-night movies with my brother, mom, and dad. The fact that we have the chance to check in with each other in person is something that I am incredibly grateful for. The thirty-minute phone calls and text messages we shared previously simply don’t compare to the amount of space we can hold together now.

For the first time in a while, the whole family has been able to properly catch up. You forget how much happens until you have the luxury to sit and share. I feel incredibly lucky to hear stories about what’s happening at my dad’s hospital, about what projects my brother is working on, and even having the chance to help out with my mom’s community engagements. I am reminded of how influenced I am by my family’s values, and it has reminded me of my roots.
When I returned, I started to mind map all of my interests in hopes of trying to find common themes. One that emerged was the topic of human flourishing. I’m currently taking an online class on positive psychology. I have found that the material has been so wonderful during our current times, reminding me of the power of gratitude and the need to maintain an abundance mindset.”

Read the story on the Cornell alumni website.

More News from A&S

 Woman displays baked goods