Last week I had to move out of my off-campus apartment. It only feels like a short while since I had signed the lease, but it had already been a year and it was time to say goodbye to the apartment and my roommate, who graduated last week. As I was packing, I was surprised (yet again) by the amount of stuff I had accumulated. I didn’t have space to store all of it. There were textbooks, old essays, random pieces of paper which offered a glimpse into the past, my first paycheck stub ever, objects which evoked memories of good times with friends; all of these had to be left behind.
As I packed and flew out to Seattle for my summer internship, I was onto a new chapter of life. I’m a senior now, almost ready to step out of the Cornell bubble and into the real world. This summer seems to be a trial period of what lies ahead. Moments like these are nerve-wracking, yet very exciting.
This is the end of my third academic year at Cornell. It’s been almost four years since I wrote my college admissions essays and I’ve come a long way since then. As I was looking through Masters programs to potentially apply to next year, I came across questions and essay prompts which are very similar to the ones I answered for college applications. But I approach the same questions very differently now.
The most common advice I had received for college essays was “Be yourself”. Until recently, I didn’t quite understand what that meant. I got the literal meaning: I shouldn’t pretend to be someone I’m not in order to sound impressive. I would probably produce a better essay by writing about an simple or obscure book that truly influenced me than if I tried to write about Sartre, Kafka, Shakespeare or Tolstoy without actually having understood their works. I extended this idea to the interests, experiences, beliefs and the self that I projected in my essays. I managed to do that: the person I claimed to be in my essays was a proper subset of the person I actually was. But the essays I finally submitted were not phenomenal, so I concluded that being myself was not sufficient and that perhaps I should have thrown some pretension in the mix too.
In retrospect, I know that I didn’t fully understand what being yourself meant. I had written about the superficial aspects of being myself; I described some impressive enough experience (ofcourse, that’s subjective) and said something about how it influenced me. But I never took the time to sit down and reflect on the principles I implicitly live by or the priorities which guide my decisions. The values and principles to which I’m rooted are what ultimately define me as a person. Over these three years of college, personal reflection and numerous heated discussions have helped me identify some of my personal principles. There were times when I was discussing an issue with a friend and our opinions would seem irreconcilable. So we unraveled our respective opinions and tried to find the essential point of difference and I would often be surprised by my deeper motivations which I had previously been unconscious of. Often, the same motivations appeared again and again in different contexts. I had even found myself at the verge of frustration and tears when these principles were attacked; I’ve been learning to keep my calm and objectively consider arguments against my very intimate and personal values (almost there!). But the bottomline is that when you find yourself intimately engaged with a principle, willing to make significant compromises to uphold it and relentlessly working to realize it, you know that you’ve found one of your guiding principles. That should probably be the theme of your essay. It’s this process of self-discovery and reflection that I was missing in my own efforts to “be myself” in my college essays.
To high school seniors applying to college next year, I would recommend spending time this summer reflecting (in any medium: writing, video, conversation, anything) on the essence of who you are and what your deepest motivations are. It is harder to envision and achieve than writing an essay about that impressive community service trip or research project you undertook, but the journey is personally rewarding and will ultimately produce better essays. Meanwhile, I will also be engaged in a parallel process of reflection as I begin to prepare for life after college (Yes, I’m a senior now).
Having lived in collegetown for a year, my roommate and I are both tired of collegetown restaurants. At some places, we don’t even need to look at the menu because we already know exactly what’s on it. So on Friday, when we were trying to decide where to get dinner, we couldn’t decide on a place that didn’t sound sick and boring. We have also visited our commons favourites too often this semester. Just when we were worried that we had exhausted our options, we decided to go downtown. We took a bus down to the commons and then walked all the way to Zaza’s Cucina, an Italian fine dining restaurant. The weather was nice and the sun’s oblique evening rays made our walk across residential Ithaca seem magical.
The restaurant itself was far nicer than the best collegetown restaurants. My roommate was glad this meal would be a change from the usual tofu based dishes. The average age of customers at Zaza’s was probably twice my age, which was also a welcome change.
I tried the wild mushroom risotto and fell in love with it. It was surprisingly flavorful! I’m not a fan of cheese, but a certain cheese-and-tomato appetizer (whose name I don’t recall) was so flavorful that I didn’t mind the relatively large quantity of cheese. As we were eating, I had forgotten that I was in college, or in Ithaca. I simply had a great meal and good conversation with friends. Zaza’s ambience created a bubble outside the Cornell bubble.
One of the Philosophy classes I’m taking this semester is PHIL3203: Aristotle. I did not have a particular interest in studying Aristotle, but I wanted to take a higher level Philosophy class and the professor teaching this class has great reviews. So I signed up for it. For almost three quarters of the semester, we just studied Aristotle’s texts. We started with his categories, rules of logic and proof, theory of knowledge, and went on to study his books on physics, biology and metaphysics.
I found two things difficult about studying Aristotle –
1) Reading Aristotle.
The text we use is an English translation of the Greek sources. Although Aristotle is a far better writer than most other philosophers (I was almost in tears when I had to read Kant last year) and has a great style of writing his essays, the English is not very straightforward. The style of writing was unfamiliar to me because of how old the text is and several words were misleading because Aristotle used them in contexts that they are no longer used in. Just when I became comfortable reading Aristotle, I ran into roadblock two.
2) What a strange worldview!
When we began reading Aristotle’s books on Physics, I encountered the evolution of scientific knowledge very drastically. Many of the fundamental assumptions Aristotle holds about the physical world and the laws of nature are very different from what we accept to be true now. Aristotle’s conception of the physical world was entirely foreign to me. It was difficult to set aside the model of the physical world I’ve been taught for years throughout school and college and fairly evaluate Aristotle’s arguments in light of his own assumptions. Following his explanations of some physical phenomena was a task that took great mental strength simply because they sound so absurd today.
In the last few weeks, the nature of our study has changed. We don’t just read Aristotle’s texts and try to understand them now. In class, our professor sometimes presents us with puzzles. Our class of about 15 students tries to come up various Aristotelian explanations for the puzzle and then we try to judge which one Aristotle would most likely agree with. Basically, now that we have some understanding of Aristotle’s texts, we put on the Aristotle cap and try to think like Aristotle would.
How is this like CS3110 (Functional Programming and Advanced Data Structures) at all? CS3110 class is the third programming class a CS major might take at Cornell. The first two are taught using Java and Python, which are both imperative programming languages. A lot of students find CS3110 challenging because it introduces functional programming, a vastly different paradigm. It’s not that functional programming itself is difficult. But for students who have gotten used to the thinking imperatively, setting aside the imperative thought process and embracing a new model of problem solving can be challenging. In this way, it’s exactly like studying Aristotle. First you have to learn a new language, OCaml in CS3110 and Aristotelian-English in PHIL3203. Then, you must set aside your current model of the world and learn to think fluently in a strange, new model of the world. Both classes teach you to think using differing models and to be comfortable switching between the old and the new. Computer Science and Philosophy aren’t so disparate after all!