Back to campus life after all these years!

A.H. Jaffor Ullah

Published on February 13, 2007


This hardly a retrospective writing. A month or so ago before hurricane Katrina struck Southeast Louisiana coastline if someone would have told me that I will be back into a campus, I would have jeered at him or her. But look? Where am I now? A week ago on September 24, 2005, I came to Ithaca, New York - a college town that is 240 or so miles northwest of New York City to start a new life.

Katrina hit hard the Crescent City -- the nickname of New Orleans -- so much so that the research center where I worked continuously for 20 years was taken out of commission. The center that provided livelihood to 250 scientists, associate-scientists, technicians, etc., is now an empty building ready to be renovated. A 10-15 feet wall of water got inside the building thus damaging the ground floor. All the staff were relocated to various parts of the U.S. Four of us who worked in a project to design an enzyme to cut down phosphate pollution resulting from poultry and swine farms were transferred to the U.S. Plant, Soil, and Nutrition laboratory located inside the Cornell University. We have the slightest clue how long we will stay here in Ithaca. It may be as short as 6-12 months or it may linger over a year. I came to Ithaca with an open mind. Life after Katrina had been very unpredictable for all of us - the victims. The itinerant life that was started in the aftermath of Katrina continued for about three weeks for me. That had to stop.

I flew from Atlanta to Syracuse, an airline hub in the upstate New York. I rented a car at Syracuse airport and drove about 60-70 miles in the southwest direction to reach Ithaca after crossing many a small town in this mountainous region, which grows apple, plum, and of course grapes that brew in the winery to produce upstate wine for dinner table.

This part of New York state is extremely hilly. The hillside is still verdant, no sign of fall color discernible to naked eyes as of now, but one could sense that before long the foliage of myriad kinds of deciduous trees and shrubs would change color to prepare for months of wintry days and nights. While New Orleans area is still hot and muggy at this time, Ithaca and surrounding place, which is about 1200-1300 miles to the northeast of coastal Louisiana, is having a typical fall weather; 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime while plunging to a crisp 40-45 degrees Fahrenheit in the night. I came here without any fall or winter clothes, which was a big mistake on my part. In New Orleans, one could survive without any winter clothes because of the mild semi-tropical climate they have down there. But upstate New York is a different place where winter here could be very brutal. I remedied my clothing situation by becoming an ardent shopper. Bought some fall and winter clothes. I saw a guy in a departmental store meticulously looking at some winter boots. Carrying a pair of suede shoe I approached him and asked, �Do you think I can make it out here in winter months with this shoe?� He replied with a wry face, �Not a chance!� I saw that the boot he was examining had more insulation and had a sturdy construction. �This would get you going in December-January,� the man told me with a smiling face. Although the boot weighs a ton, I reluctantly bought it. The last thing I want to see is a pair of partially frozen leg after walking over snow-laden road and fields at Cornell University. I am getting ready now to brave the harsh winter of upstate New York.

The Cornell University is not exactly an unknown place to me. In the 1980s when I was a research associate at the laboratory of Professor I.C. Gunsalus, in University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, I heard some interesting stories about life in Cornell from my mentor who did his bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees at Cornell in late 1930s. Later in early 1990s, I met a female post-doctoral fellow in my research institute in New Orleans who worked for few months in my laboratory was also a Cornell alumni. Everyone who visited Cornell say that it is one of the prettiest campuses in the U.S. This is not an understatement. Ithaca is a small town with about 30,000 people (excluding 20 thousand students in two colleges) housed in about 40-50 square miles. Both the Cornell and Ithaca College are located in two neighboring hills. To be in the campus of these two colleges, one has climb hills. Not many people literally climbs the hills. I did not see any biker doing that. Students, faculty members, and staff either ride the city and county buses or drive cars. Ithaca, located inside Tompkins County, is a hub for TCAT (Tompkins County Area Transport) buses that crisscross the town and the outlying areas. With a Cornell student, faculty, and staff card, one could ride these buses free. I surely will take advantage of this facility in the winter when roads in Ithaca become treacherous because of excessive snowfalls. Inadvertently, I rented a house 1.25 mile to the east of the campus. Therefore, if I wanted to go back-and forth from my house to my place of work, I could do so by riding route 50 buses. The university, which is home to many diehard liberals and conservationists, promotes mass transit system. Talking about liberals, the other day I saw a car bumper sticker that read �Do not elect Bush in 2004). In the winter days with steep snow covered roads to climb, many a Cornelian rides buses to avoid hazardous driving. You won�t find such a nice arrangement in other campuses. Come to think of it, the buses in Urbana-Champaign cost money and routes are not extensive as it is in Ithaca.

To start a new life here in the campus I needed various identity cards. It took me about 2 hours to walk from one building to another to obtain Cornell�s picture id, library card, Net id card (that allows one to use the Internet and receive e-mail), and a bus pass. Parking car is very tight in the crammed campus; therefore, only option that I had was to walk across the campus. Most buildings that I had to go falls on Tower Road; thus, I thought I would saunter taking my time. But how wrong was I. Thousands of students came out from their classes; it was lunch time. I had to walk faster than my usual speed to make sure that I was not causing any traffic jam on sidewalk. Suddenly, I thought I became a grad student all over again!. In my youth, in the 1970s, I have done this routine for five years. Crisscrossing the Cornell campus thus brought back a lot of memory in me.

I have always envied college professors for one reason. They always teach students whose age range from 18 through 28. Since I worked in New Orleans in a research lab for over twenty-years, I almost forgot the charm of a campus life. Yesterday, as I cut across the campus, I saw so many young students. White Americans, Chinese, Indians, and few American minorities. Since Cornell is a proud member of Ivy League schools, the tuition is a steep one. It therefore makes sense as to why it is a predominantly a white school.

Fall brings fashion to the campus, undoubtedly. Male students mostly wore long-sleeved shirts and slacks, but coeds wore mostly low-rider jeans. The college campuses are microcosm of American culture; thus, I am not all that surprised to see the girls wearing trendy clothes. Personally, I would not rather see women wearing low- rider jeans. Clothes are supposed to cover human body. These new fashion jeans do quite the opposite. We shall have to see how long this fad of low-rider jeans would last. In the 1970s, there was a craze about bell-bottom jeans. We all used to wear them �religiously� while thinking it was a cool thing to don ourselves with bell-bottom jeans. Now we know better! Fashion is made and marketed by big corporations who are into clothing business. Low rider jeans for women are a big business these days. Not only the teens and college coeds are buying them, some middle-aged women are also wearing them but some of them look horrible due to excess fat both in midriff area and waistline.

The fall season also brings two other things to tree-studded campuses in America - cold temperature and fall color. The deciduous trees� leaves would go through chemical changes before falling to the ground. Because of these changes the leaf color would change from green various shades of yellow and red. Sometimes the fall color would come a bit early in the last week of September. This year, however, leaves are showing a but resistance to change color. If one looks carefully, one could see that terminal leaves are turning color. Within 2 weeks from now, the changing color of the foliages would dazzle us. Then the leaves would fall on the ground to give the trees an austere look. For the next six months (from November through April) the trees would go into a dormant phase. In spring, leaf bud would sprout to break the dormancy and the trees would come to life displaying their usual verdant demeanor.

As I have mentioned before, I came to America as a grad student in the fall of 1969. After 36 long years I am again crisscrossing roads in a campus town. It is a throwback for me. The campus life, which I was so accustomed to and which I almost forgot, is coming back to me. Again, I felt like a grad student in Cornell campus. It seems as if this campus town is going to be my home for a year so. I am determined to make the best use of it.

Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, an itinerant researcher and columnist, writes from the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.