Ithaca: More than Farms and Pastures

A student juggles at the 2017 CU Downtown event on Ithaca Commons.

By: Alexa Saylan ’22

In a weird way, I consider my journey to Ithaca to have started a lot earlier than freshman move-in day. Imagine this: Fifteen-year-old Alexa, antsy after sitting in a car for four hours with her siblings, en route to one of the Finger Lakes from suburban New Jersey. Recognizing the collective antsiness of their three children, my parents thought it would be good to stop in Ithaca and drive around Cornell University’s campus. To be blunt, 15-year-old Alexa was not into Cornell’s campus — I did not particularly care for its size, and even more, its rural surroundings. So, when 17-year-old Alexa began applying to colleges, Cornell wasn’t initially on the radar, especially since all I wanted was to get out of the ’burbs and relocate to a major city. Even so, life has a way of playing out, and current me is so glad I didn’t get what I first wanted, since I absolutely love Ithaca.

Why? Here are a few reasons:

Local Traditions
While Ithaca’s natural beauty makes for awesome Instagram posts throughout the year, autumn’s foliage is what I find most extraordinary. Our unofficial welcoming of the season occurs annually on the final weekend of September with Apple Harvest Festival, usually shortened to “Applefest.” During my first Applefest as a freshman, I was shocked to see dozens of local vendors spanning the entire pedestrian downtown area, selling any apple-based confection you can imagine. From traditional ciders and pies to dishes such as apple mac and cheese and apple fried rice, there was nothing I couldn’t find. If apples aren’t your thing, vendors sell a variety of other autumnal, carnival, and international foods — like pumpkin cookies and fried Oreos.

A hot cider sign at Ithaca's Apple Festival on the Ithaca Commons.
A hot cider sign at Ithaca’s Apple Festival on the Ithaca Commons.


Cultural Amenities
Ithaca may not boast the population sizes of major metropolitan areas, but don’t be fooled into thinking that Ithaca is culturally dead. One of my favorite places to spend time is Cornell Cinema, housed right here on campus at the bottom of our student union building. Showings occur almost every day and range from recent box office hits, acclaimed foreign films, vintage classics, and so many others that I cannot find on Netflix. For example, I saw A Star is Born and Cold War in anticipation of the Academy Awards last year. Off campus, Ithaca is home to numerous restaurants with a diverse array of cuisines, atmospheres, and price points. In fact, Ithaca, NY, has more restaurants per capita than New York City! I had Ethiopian food for the first time at a restaurant downtown, and there are still so many places I have yet to explore — maybe when I gain the confidence, I’ll stop by the popular Wednesday Salsa Night at Agava.

Loving Community
It may sound cliché, but in my experience the affectionately called “townies” truly care about the Ithaca community. I’ve seen altruism occur at all levels in Ithaca, like when dozens of non-profit organizations agglomerate on the Arts Quad each September to recruit Cornell students, or during the city-wide Winter Clothes Drive to provide for Ithacans in need. Others volunteer their time (and their fluffy dogs!) visiting students at Olin Library — a Cornell student favorite. Ithacans are community-oriented in the sense that they also care for the surrounding environment. Leaders for climate action range from Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 to the thousands of residents who participate in mass demonstrations, all of whose efforts culminated in the city’s official adoption of a Green New Deal last June.

While I have a couple years to go before I graduate, I realize already that the Cornell experience is more than attending classes, studying, meeting friends from all over the world, and interacting with world-class professors. The Cornell experience also means becoming part of the Ithaca community. It’s an experience that, when we graduate and do amazing things in the future, some may take for granted. My advice to prospective students is to be ready to embrace the experience. I’m not sure where the future will take 32-year-old Alexa, 22-year-old Alexa, or even the Alexa of tomorrow. What I do know is I’ll always be grateful to Ithaca.