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

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By Ariel Cooper ’15

Ariel Cooper

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.

Ariel Cooper in high school on the Cornell sign
During Summer College in 2010 …

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.

Ariel Cooper in her cap and gown
… and at Commencement 2015.

During my undergrad years I did manage to venture out a bit, particularly when my work at the Daily Sun and my desire to explore the local equestrian community took me further afield—even as far as Seneca Lake. And of course I trekked downtown for Ithaca’s legendary Apple Fest in the fall, and to see the ice sculptures on the Commons in the winter.

But when students from neighboring Ithaca College would tell me about their adventures downtown, I was lost. Why go all the way down there when there was so much to do on campus? What more was there, really?

I ventured back twice after graduation—to attend Commencement. I loved the ceremony so much that I volunteered at the 2016 and 2017 ceremonies. I also made a surprise visit to some of my sorority sisters the spring after I graduated, where I tearfully told them to enjoy every moment they had left.

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In August 2017 I headed off to The Ohio State University to pursue a graduate degree, figuring I would be back for my 5th Reunion before I knew it.

Well … we all know what happened next.

That Reunion had the misfortune of falling in June 2020. As COVID-19 took over the world, my chance at a return journey to Ithaca slowly slipped away.

The following year came, and hopes of a rescheduled Reunion were dashed.

As COVID-19 took over the world, my chance at a return journey to Ithaca slowly slipped away.

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.

Ariel Cooper at Buttermilk Falls
At Buttermilk Falls in summer 2022.

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.

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.

All images provided.

Published December 5, 2022


  1. Janet Rydell, Class of 1976

    Enjoyed reading your essay. It reminds me of the novel “The People We Keep” by Allison Larkin. I can’t say I remember how I came across this novel, nor did I know about the author’s connection to Ithaca until I googled her. I figured she had to have some connection to Cornell or IC. And she did. Having been a journalist at the Sun you might be familiar with this review,two%20years%20she%20remembers%20fondly.
    Again – really enjoyed your essay.
    Janet Rydell ’76

  2. Patricia Stewart Noar, Class of 1977

    I am so glad you are seeing the depth and blessings surrounding all of Ithaca, Cornell and the area. Opening eyes, mind and heart to greater things

  3. Hillary Sokolsky Waxman, Class of 1978

    Ariel, thank you for bringing me back to some of the most beautiful places on earth. Cornell is beautiful all year, but Ithaca and the Finger Lakes are especially wonderful in the summer. I’m so glad you enjoyed the off-campus experience. When I brought my Arielle to Cornell she started sneezing and decided she was allergic to Cornell. LOL. Loved your article. Best to your parents.

  4. Donna Krochak, Class of 1987

    Ariel really enjoyed your story and it brought me back to my years at Cornell. Keep going back as there is so much to discover. My best to your parents.

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