December 27th, 2021 (Updated January 12th, 2022)

Reflecting on my First Semester at Cornell

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Hello all! Long time no see…

I just wanted to write a little post reflecting on my first semester at Cornell University because, well, I’m in a reflecting mood. Through writing this post, I want to figure out for myself what went well and what could have went better, and I hope you enjoy this glimpse into my thoughts. I’m not exactly sure the best way to organize this post, so I’ll begin chronologically and see how it goes…


Part 1: A Little Night Music

So I guess it makes sense to start with the first day. Actually, I’ll take it back a day. The day before I left for Ithaca, August 18th, 2021, was the 7-month mensiversary (yes, I looked that one up) of my girlfriend Eden and I. To celebrate that and culminate the last in-person date for a while, I made her a scavenger hunt that involved searching for post-its with clues around our hometown of Great Neck. I placed each of these post-its in a special spot where something significant happened during our 7 months together, and it was a really nice activity. We both had a lot of fun. I mention this because while it was sad to leave Eden behind, we both felt happy that our last day together for a while was such a great day; therefore, I could focus on the excitement of going to college.

I won’t get into specifics about the first few days, but they were…fine. Nothing in Orientation Week was very interesting, although I was starting to get nervous about making friends. My parents stayed for a day or two after we got there, and I will never forget our dinner conversation sitting on the balcony of North Star Dining Room at Appel Commons the night before they left. Watching the beautiful Ithaca sunset, my mom started to get nervous about me making friends, and I started to get nervous too. Everywhere I looked in the dining hall students were sitting with their new friends. Cornell is a big place, and I suddenly grew worried. But I assured myself that I would figure it out one way or another.

And so I did. I made my first real friend towards the end of Orientation Week at a carnival activity in Barton Hall. His name was Chris, and I can’t remember exactly how I met him at that carnival with 1000 people, but somehow I did. Well, I had actually met him at an engineering meet and greet activity a few day ago, but it was one of those things where you introduce yourself to someone for two minutes, get their Snapchat, and move on, so I figured I would never see him again. But I did! I remember walking back with him to North Campus after the carnival, and he was describing to me how he was nervous about making friends too.

The next day, I invited him to participate in the Cornell Amazing Race, which was a scavenger hunt around campus. He joined, and that’s where we met Pablo and Joaquin. We had dinner with them that night and all bonded together. And my friend group grew to 4. Very soon after, we had Convocation. Somehow in the swarm of 3000 kids heading to Convocation I bumped into a random kid named Carter. We were both walking alone so we introduced ourselves to each other and bonded over our Apple Watches. He seemed like a nice kid, so I kinda forced him to come to dinner with Chris, Pablo, Joaquin, and I. He reluctantly accepted, but realized he liked our group and became #5. And my biggest fear — making friends — had vanished.

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Top: Me, Pablo, and Chris
Bottom: Me, Chris, Joaquin, and Carter

But of course, college can’t be all that easy. I soon realized my second biggest fear was becoming a reality: sleep. For those who don’t know me, I am a terrible sleeper; I wake up from the quietest of sounds or the slightest speck of light. So obviously, living in a dorm is probably one of the worst things for me. I had purposely picked a single room for this reason (and thank God I did; I have heard the nightmare stories of other people with a roommate) and had hoped that it would allow me to control the room how I wanted — the temperature, the noise, and light, the time I went to sleep, etc. However, I soon realized that I would be unable to fully control any of these things.

The first came with some weird tones and vibrations I began hearing from one of the double rooms next to mine. It didn’t take long to realize that one of the occupants owned an electric guitar (and that the walls in Mews Hall were incredibly thin). He played his instrument past 10:30 PM, which was when I wanted to go to sleep, so I tried to fall asleep. It was impossible. Not only did I hear those loud noises but the room also vibrated from them. I know I could have asked him to stop playing during quiet hours (which start at 11 PM), but I didn’t want to be rude. I also have a sound machine, but it barely helped. So I stayed up through this little night music till around midnight.

This continued for the next couple of days, but luckily, someone (it was not me) must have told him not to play during quiet hours because he began stopping around 11 PM. Thank goodness, I thought, now I can get the sleep I deserve! Well…not quite. I soon noticed that I began feeling hot and cold throughout the night, even though the air conditioning (which we cannot control) appeared to be set to a certain temperature. After some discovery, I realized that the room’s heater, which ran the width of the room above my bed, was on full-blast. WTF, I thought, why is the heater on during the summer??? Luckily, we have a thermostat to control the heater, so that would turn it off, right? Wrong. It was down to the lowest setting. I Googled information about Cornell’s heaters, and Cornell said that they aren’t even supposed to be on until the winter. Confused, I put in a service request to fix the heater.

Unfortunately, after a week went by, no one came to fix it. There were many nights where I would get hot at 3 AM and try to fix the heater. One night I would bang at it, another I would rapidly change the temperature on the thermostat, another I would completely re-arrange my room, another I tried to disassemble the thermostat from the wall, another I opened the window, and another I bought a fan to blow outside air from the window (funny enough, this completely failed, as the air pressure inside the room was so great that the fan could not blow any air into the room). After countless sleepless nights, I realized there was nothing I could do go fix this issue. I called the service request office again, and they had no idea when it would be fixed. In the meantime, now that I was going to sleep later, I began to wake up later. Of course, the sun woke me up and prevented me from sleeping in. Not only that, but I began waking up from banging doors in the hallway. I attempted some things to mitigate that, such as putting a sheet around my door, a chair in front of my door, earplugs, and adding two more sound machines, but nothing really helped. However, I did find something called “Brown Noise” which was a certain sound that mitigated low-frequency noises like door banging. I had a friend who was visiting Cornell bring me up a speaker that I used for this purpose, and it actually worked well.

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The infamous heater in Mews Hall room 211B

Finally, after a month of dealing with all these things, I had enough. I needed to solve the heater issue once and for all (as that was probably the most annoying issue since it began to also make clicking noises). On the morning of September 30th, I called up the service people again. The person who answered the phone was actually really nice and promised that she would send someone to fix it. To my surprise, a worker was sent to my room that day!! Unfortunately though, when I came back to my room, my heart sunk: the heater was still on. However, when I checked later that night, it had turned off! I’m still not sure why it was on in the first place, but now it at least turned on and off depending on the temperature in my room, which was a big improvement. I finally began to sleep better.

Alright, enough of the bad stuff. Let’s get to the good! I would be remiss if I failed to mention the academics in one of the best engineering schools at one of the hardest and most infamously depressing colleges in the entire world. And I must say…it’s not as bad as high school. For those who went to/go to Great Neck South High School, you know what I mean. For those who don’t know, my high school was extremely competitive — as my 9th grade math teacher would say, people would "kill for a point." While this sounds like a toxic atmosphere, it was incredibly rewarding in my opinion. I was involved in so many things, from robotics to science research to film/TV production. Anyway, this meme, created by one of my friends, probably sums my high school up best.

So yeah, academics at Cornell Engineering actually weren’t that bad. I think there are two reasons for this. One, obviously, is my preparedness from high school. And two, is my abundance of AP credit from high school which allowed me to take fewer college credits to lighten my workload. Lectures originally were difficult and uncomfortable, mainly due to the new format of 500+-person classes, hot and stuffy rooms (especially with masks!), and the abundance of material covered, but I got used to it. Homework, while sometimes difficult, reinforced the material very well. One thing I noticed and like is the lack of busy work in college. Honestly, most of the work I got in high school was busy work, whereas most of the college work really helps you deeply understand the subject and prepare for the exams. Speaking of exams, I did fairly well on my first set of prelims (these are essentially midterms), as the study skills I developed in high school payed off.

Now let’s talk about extracurriculars. Honestly, I had much less free time in college than I had expected. As such, I needed to be careful with how much extra activities I added. I didn’t really join any clubs at the club fair, but for a while I was eyeing the Engineering Project Teams. These, if you don’t know, are student-run teams affiliated with the College of Engineering that work on many interesting real-world projects. Some of these projects include vehicle building/racing, app development, website development, data science, sustainability, biomedical and health engineering, robotics, concrete-canoe building (yes, it can float!) and so much more. I really wanted to join a Project Team not just to gain hands-one experience in an interesting field but to also be on a close-knit, special team. I discovered that I loved being on a team from high school robotics and I wanted to have a similar experience in college.

At first I sought two teams: AppDev and DTI. The former, hence the name, worked on developing campus-wide mobile apps whereas the latter focused on developing campus-wide web apps. AppDev didn’t allow first-semester freshmen to apply, so I decided to go for DTI — except I knew nothing about web development. So I decided to enroll in DTI’s Trends in Web Dev class, which was essentially a two-credit S/U class that taught web development using React. I know I’m skipping ahead here, but I’m really glad I took that class because I not only learned a lot but also made connections with two really awesome students, one of which I am developing a mobile app with now. Anyway, back to the story. After going to the Project Team Fest, which was about one week before all the project team applications were due, I discovered two other teams that looked interesting to me: Cornell Electric Vehicles (CEV) and Engineering World Health (EWH). Over the past year I had developed an interest in electric vehicles and also worked on a research project to predict one’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer (you can read more about that in the tabs at the top of this website!), which was why both of these appealed to me as well. I decided not to apply for DTI just yet, as by this time (late September) I had barely started Trends in Web Dev and I did not think I could put my best foot forward in my application. So, on October 1st, I submitted my applications to CEV and EWH. Now it was just time to wait and see.

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Some of the project teams at the Project Team Fest

As I finished the final week before fall break in early October, I realized how much I had accomplished in only a month and a half. I was able to make friends, succeed academically, and apply for two project teams. While sleeping was often frustrating, I learned a lot about adaptation and resilience from that experience. Also, I forgot to mention my girlfriend. Eden and I had a few tough moments, but we made long-distance work as best as we could. While I was sad to leave Cornell for fall break, I was ready to visit my family and Eden.


Part 2: Defy Gravity

Over the fall break, I had the pleasant surprises of getting interviews for both the CEV and EWH project teams! This was really exciting but also really nerve-wracking because I had not done many interviews prior to this. Upon returning back to Cornell, I spent many hours over the next week preparing for both interviews — thinking of potential questions, answering them in the mirror, and building confidence. I had both interviews on a rainy Saturday, and while I thought that both went well, I was nervous because I had no idea how I actually performed compared to others. But I guess good preparation payed off because I got onto both project teams!

Now, honestly, the hardest part of all this was choosing between the two. One one hand, CEV felt like a closer-knit team which had many projects I could work on using my various interests; on the other hand, EWH worked on more meaningful projects that closely aligned with my long-term goal of helping the world in some significant health-related way. I really wanted to go for EWH, but after talking with my parents, I realized that EWH might not always be working on projects I’m interested in. Besides, it might be better for me to get similar experience working on health-related projects through research with faculty. CEV had more of the team vibe that I wanted and allowed me to work on both software and operations projects (which I wanted). So after much deliberation, doubting, and flipping Siri coins (all of which were in EWH’s favor, by the way), I chose CEV. It was extremely difficult to write my rejection email to EWH.

During the remaining month of October, nothing interesting happened. I continued to go about my business, but I noticed that I was happier than before. I had gotten onto a project team, I had continued to succeed in other ways, and I kept adapting to my new living situation. Parents weekend came, and I had fun showing my parents around campus. I also had my first CEV onboarding, where I felt very welcomed. I felt like I was doing pretty well. I was defying gravity.

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First CEV Meeting

But not for long. Towards the middle of November, once prelim 2 season began, I started to feel sad. During the past week Cornell had two scary incidents on campus: a bomb threat and a gunman at large. While I knew we would be safe, it was scary to witness these events. The campus also had a sullen tone to it for a while. I was also getting a little stressed academically, I missed Eden, and we weren’t doing much in CEV. But I pushed through the grind and made it out to the other side, looking forward to a nice Thanksgiving break!


Part 3: Too Darn Hot

Thanksgiving break actually wasn’t that good honestly. A few things happened that made me sad, and the day I got back to campus was actually pretty bad (I became very nauseous on the bus ride back, people kept taking my laundry out of the dryer, etc.).

The next few weeks were pretty boring and I felt a little depressed. I had begun my real work for CEV, and while some of it was interesting, I was not 100% sure that I wanted to work on the software-related stuff. I was tasked to work on car simulation, and while cool, I didn’t really have much motivation for doing it. I was still regretting my project team decision a little, but then as soon as I would regret it, I would regret not joining CEV if I had hypothetically joined EWH in my mind (if that makes any sense?). So it was kind of an endless cycle. For whatever reason my room started to become too darn hot again, so I had to make some more adjustments (OK, lol, I know I mention this heating thing so much. But it's actually really interesting. For whatever reason, when the temperature outside is between 40°-90°, my room remains a nice, cool temperature. My heater turns on a lot, but the A/C compensates. But as soon as the temperature dips below 40°, it gets hot in my room. But plot twist — the heater never turns on! And the A/C still seems to blow cool air. But it's hot in there…so weird…) In the meantime, I worked on my final project for Trends in Web Dev, which was pretty cool (my group made CUDormReviews, which is a website where students can review Cornell dorms), and studied for finals. Finals became kinda weird, as they moved online at the last second due to us going into COVID Red Level (and my CS one became optional!) but my Chem one was alright. During Finals Week I went for a few walks around Beebe Lake to calm myself down when I became stressed, which was nice. On the last day before I left for Winter Break, I filmed a video about Cornell North Campus architecture (I became interested in that throughout the semester), took a long walk around campus, and enjoyed not having any more stress. And with that, my semester came to a close.


Part 4: Reflection

Ok, I don’t think this post went exactly how I intended it. I gave much more of a summary of my semester than a reflection of it, but I really intended to only do the latter. So I shall do the latter now!

Overall, I think it was a pretty good semester. While I had thought I would become involved in more things and be happier overall, I learned a lot about myself as a student, friend, boyfriend, and person. I learned about adapting to uncomfortable and new environments and making the most of situations — I now feel like I can handle any sort of sleep situation! I learned how to interview effectively for a position and how to make tough decisions regarding it. I learned that I can handle Cornell Engineering and still have time to do other things. I also haven’t really talked about my specific classes yet. Besides Chem, I truly enjoyed most of my classes, especially Object-Oriented programming and Data Structures, my first-year writing seminar on the ethics of artificial intelligence, and Trends in Web Dev. Although I am not thrilled about my course selection next semester, I know that there are many more interesting classes down the line that will teach me so much. I realized that Cornell Engineering is a great place to be, especially for an intended CS/InfoSci major.

Oh yeah, about that. So I think this semester definitely made me more interested in CS, although I am also debating majoring in InfoSci instead, since that was my original intended major. I like things from both, but I’ll figure it out. I know I am in good hands either way, though.

But here are some things I want to improve on. The semester was far from perfect, and I want to set the following goals for myself going forward:

1. Have more fun! You may have noticed that I failed to mention “fun” things. While I am not into partying, I did have some opportunities to do some fun stuff, like climbing the clock tower, going to a football game, walking around campus with friends, attending some random events on campus, and even simply having meals with friends. But that’s not enough. I want to push myself to do more fun things because, well, that’s what you do in college. These four years will fly by quickly, and I want to make the most of them.

2. Figure out the project team stuff! I really want to give CEV a full semester to see if I truly love it. I think that will tell me if it’s something I want to continue doing or if I want to pursue a different project team. It will also let me know if, say, I only want to be on the operations subteam rather than both operations and software.

3. Be happier! I am usually always a glass-half-full kind of person, but I found myself being a glass-half-empty person sometimes at Cornell. I’m not sure if it’s the nature of the large, hilly, and cold campus, but whatever it is, I want to fix it. Now that I know what to expect, I think I can become my happier self again.

So that’s about it! I hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. I’ve been wanting to write this since around mid-October, as there has been a lot on my mind during the semester. I am really excited to see what comes of the next semester, and I’ll catch you guys back here at the end of that!

- Reid


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