After the first week of classes, Emma Williams, '15, (second from right) goes out for Indian food with friends from her dorm. Second from left is Sonia, her roommate from Seattle.

FRESHMAN FOCUS: Former Octagon editor-in-chief Emma Williams now designs pages at Cornell

Find out what the members of the class of 2015 are up to in their first year of college. A college freshman is featured in the Freshman Focus every Friday. 

Emma Williams, ’15, attends Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She plans on double-majoring in biology and chemistry and is on a pre-med track. Williams was print editor-in-chief of the Octagon and now designs pages for Cornell’s newspaper, The Daily Sun.

Q: What classes are you taking?

A: I’m in Comparative Physiology (an Intro Bio course), Introduction to Psychology, General Chemistry 1, and I have a writing seminar. Mine is on the topic of the philosophy of death. It sounds very morbid and depressing, but it’s quite interesting.

I’m also in the introductory biology lab. It’s called the Investigative Biology Lab.

And this semester I’m taking Introduction to Bowling.

Q: Bowling?

A: Everyone has to take PE courses here. You can do everything from bowling to figure skating.

I have a lot of labs since I’m in sciences, so it’s kind of hard to schedule. It turns out that bowling was one of the easiest ones to fit in my schedule. (I) just bowl for an hour and a half each Friday.

Q: What’s your favorite class?

A: I really enjoy my philosophy of death writing seminar. I go in for an hour and a half twice a week, and we just talk about life and death. We read philosophy papers and discuss them. There are so many people with such different views that it really expands your thinking.

I’ve never taken a psychology course, so I find Intro to Psychology really exciting. I really like my bio and chem classes as well, even though it’s mostly review.

Q: You recently finished prelims (midterm exams). How did those go?

A: I used to get very stressed about tests and grades. I was very high strung.

I’m still kind of like that. (But) I tried really hard this year, especially with my first round of prelims, to stay calm and not worry about the grade or anything like that.

It’s more of a mindset. This sounds zen, (but) it’s really not that weird.

I try to think of tests just as telling me where I’m at and how well I understand things.

Q: What did you do to achieve this mindset?

A: Studying-wise, I just tried to appreciate the material and really kind of internalize it because the tests in college are not the same as in high school. They’re not going to quiz you on fact.

The rest is really deeply understanding the material so you can apply it to any situation.

I still made flashcards and stuff. Then I tried to sit down and have discussions with people about the material and really try to understand it on a deeper level.

It actually worked out really well. I was really happy with my prelim grades.

I think a lot of it had to do with staying calm and just letting it happen.

Q: How’s the East Coast weather treating you?

A: So far, it’s been fine. We’re definitely into fall. It’s in the 40s, 50s during the day. And it can get pretty chilly with the winds.

We haven’t had much rain, but we do get rain every once in awhile, which is really exciting coming from drought-ridden California.

I did not expect the weather during the first three weeks of classes. It wasn’t California hot, but it was really humid. Everyone was sweating all the time, and it was just gross.

But we’ve moved past that stage. It’s nice and cool without being frigid and snowy like it will be in winter. I’m kind of scared of winter.

My parents are coming out for Parents’ Weekend at the end of October, so they’re going to take me snow boot- and big coat-shopping. That’s my birthday present this year.

Q: How’s your dorm?

A: I love my dorm so much. It is amazing. I (am) on North Campus, which is pretty much where all the freshmen live.

(I’m in) Bauer Hall. This is the newest dorm. It was built a little over 10 years ago, which is really nice. We are one of the two dorms that has air conditioning, which was so, so nice during those first three weeks.

Some of the dorms really suck, though. We have these dorms called the low rises, and I’m pretty sure they made it onto some national list for the worst dorms in America.

Williams wakes up to sunrises like this right outside her dorm-room window.
(Photo by Williams)
Emma Williams, ’15, wakes up to see sunrises like this from her dorm-room window.

Q: How’s your room?

A: I am in a double. It’s a really nice room.

It has a great view. I posted a picture of the sunrise (on Instagram). Literally, when I wake up, that is the first thing I see because my window is right there.

Q: Your roommate?

A: My roommate is amazing. She’s from Seattle.

We actually chose each other before we came, so it was not (a) random roommate. You fill out a housing questionnaire over the summer with basic questions about your living style, and it shows you the top three matches for you.

Then Sonia reached out to me because I was one of her top matches. We talked for about a week or so. We decided we really liked each other, so we just went ahead and requested each other. I’m so glad I chose her.

Q: How’s the food?

A: Really good. There’s no reason not to eat in the dining hall. The one thing they cannot make is scrambled eggs. Their scrambled eggs suck.

Q: Is there a trademark Cornell food?

A: We have a Cornell Dairy that makes ice cream and milk. They sell the Cornell Dairy ice cream in pretty much every store on campus. They actually have it in the dining halls with every single meal. It’s easy to eat a lot of ice cream. (It’s also a very hilly campus. You usually work it off, so it’s okay.)

Q: What are some cool ice cream flavors?

A: We have a new university president (Elizabeth Garrett). She’s the first female president of Cornell.

For each new president, they make a new flavor of ice cream. (This one’s) called the 24 Garrett Swirl, and it’s a mix of chocolate, caramel and mocha.

Last year was the sesquicentennial. They came out with a new Cornell flavor called Sweet Cornell. It’s sweet corn, and it’s really good. I think it actually has corn in it.

Q: You’re on Cornell’s newspaper, The Daily Sun. How is that?

A: I’m part of the design department. I lay out pages. Design literally just does layout. We don’t write headlines or captions. We just paste in the stories and put in the pictures. We only do it for news and sports. It’s pretty relaxed.

I think I’m called a design desker. I’m not in the training phase, but I’m not technically on staff yet.

I go in every Sunday from 4-6 p.m. and I just work on pages. I actually had my first front page (on Sept. 28). That was very exciting. It had a picture of the pope.

The Daily Sun office/production building is in Ithaca Commons, so I have to take a bus there. It’s really nice that it forces me to get off campus once a week.

Q: How’s Ithaca?

A: Ithaca is honestly a really cool town. I don’t have a ton of time to really explore it. I pretty much just go there on Sundays.

It’s a very small town. It’s so quaint. It reminds me of Ashland. It’s that kind of feel.

Q: Are you participating in any other extracurricular activities? Greek life?

A: My biggest time commitment is definitely The Daily Sun.

I’m a member of the Cornell Democrats, a pre-health club in arts and sciences (I chose this one because it seemed like the most relaxed one) and the Cornell Nature Society. Last weekend I helped volunteer at an SPCA march for the animals.

Q: How beautiful is the campus?

A: It’s just so, so pretty. It’s a very natural setting. I have to walk across this bridge to get to my classes on Central Campus. This bridge goes over gorges, and there’s trees everywhere. You can see these little waterfalls.

(What it looks like) is honestly one of my favorite things about Cornell. School can be stressful. It’s so peaceful to look around you and be like, “Wow, this is so beautiful!” We’ll see how I feel in winter when it’s all covered in snow and freezing.

Williams with Ezra Cornell, the university's founder.
(Photo used by permission of Williams)
Williams with Ezra Cornell, the university’s founder.

Q: What has disappointed you about Cornell?

A: The one thing that I do dislike about Cornell (and I think it applies to the East in general) is coming from California, I’m very used to friendly strangers. I’m used to smiling at people as I walk down the sidewalk. You smile, you nod and it’s totally normal.

But here, people don’t really do that. If you smile at someone, they kind of look at you like, “What’s wrong with you?”

Everyone is so nice once you actually start talking to them. (But) when you’re not actually having a conversation, they don’t smile. They just kind of look straight ahead.

Q: Why did you choose Cornell?

A: There were a lot of different reasons. Part of it was that I wanted to be far away from home. That sounds bad, but I really wanted a totally different experience.

I’ve been at Country Day for years; I’ve lived in the same house for years; I’ve had the same classmates for years. I really wanted something that would push me out of my comfort zone. Part of that was looking at colleges on the East Coast and looking at really big colleges.

I also knew I was really interested in science so I wanted a school that was strong in that.

Then I also wanted things to still be slightly familiar. Part of choosing Cornell was that my dad went to Cornell. I was familiar with the school and I’d already kind of fallen in love with it over the years.

Another factor was that I have family out here. My dad’s side of the family is an hour away from Cornell.

Q: How did you know Cornell was the right school for you?

A: I was not 100 percent wanting to apply early decision until right before I did it.

As I was going through my college list, I kept comparing everything to Cornell, and that was really when I realized Cornell was my standard.

Q: How are you adjusting to a bigger environment?

A: To be honest, I kind of like not necessarily knowing everyone. It’s nice to walk down the street and see new people.

Q: Do you have any advice for the class of 2016?

A: If you have a school that is a clear top choice, definitely apply early decision.

And once you get to college, don’t be nervous if you feel homesick. I think that homesickness is something that almost every college freshman experiences, but no one really wants to talk about.

I did not expect to be homesick at all. I was counting down the days to college. I was so ready to be here.

But even I missed my home-cooked meals and my parents. I miss Country Day so much. I had schoolsickness. I missed Octagon and friendships.

I think the only way to deal with it is to just work through it and to just accept from the beginning that you’re going to miss some things from home.

Look around yourself and just appreciate the new experiences and opportunities.

—By Zoë Bowlus

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