By Stephen W. Hiemstra
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways. (Ps 91:11)
The Divine Gift of Sledding
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
After living in the dormitory at Iowa University and taking all my meals in the cafeteria, when I was admitted to Cornell University I decided to live off campus. The idea of living off campus seemed to offer more freedom and would presumably allow me to live with great parsimony. With freedom and parsimony on my mind, during a visit to campus arranged by the department of agricultural economics in August 1976 I rented a basement in a large, cooperatively-organized house with 12 other students on Elmwood Avenue.
The basement was the largest room in the house and, because it was totally unfinished, I was able to rent it for $50 a month on the stipulation that I fix it up. Having worked as a carpenter’s helper and other construction jobs during the summers in college, fixing up a basement to make it look like an apartment was no problem. During the week before classes started, I hung a door on the basement, walled in the heating unit, and wired several electrical outlets. I furthermore converted a small workroom into a study and organized the abandoned furniture into separate living room and bedroom spaces. As living space, my basement apartment was plenty big, but the lighting was poor, the floor was crumbling concrete, and the basement would flood in a heavy rain making it an uninviting place to bring friends; ultimately, it was a depressing place to live.
My living arrangements contributed to my goal of studying economic development by permitting me to save money to travel in Puerto Rico for my thesis project, but living off campus also contributed to my social isolation leaving me more vulnerable to depression, a problem widespread at Cornell that fall. In the fall of 1976 Cornell had record numbers of suicides and student demonstrations on campus before Thanksgiving demanded the college be closed until something could be done about it. Half a dozen students and faculty members, who I heard of through the grapevine, had attempted or succeeded in killing themselves, including one of my housemates—a bright, young premed student—who overdosed herself and was committed to a psyche unit in Syracuse. I drove up to Syracuse to pay a visit, but our conversation turned out to be rather awkward because I had no idea of how to cope with suicide and I was unprepared to learn that she had begun an affair with one of her doctors there—a newlywed. Awkward . . . depressing . . . I so wanted to help.
My own depression started during Christmas break for the first time when I stayed on campus away from my family during the semester break, which was a big mistake. Adding to my sense of isolation from family, most campus activities were suspended during the break and most of my friends disappeared to visit family or, if they had the means, took skiing holidays. So Christmas turned out to be not much of a holiday and I found myself alone, in a cold, dark place with no obvious means of really celebrating the holiday.
My escape at that point was to get up one morning, despondent, and just go for a drive. Thinking of a park on the other side of town, I drove down the hill to Ithaca following an unfamiliar road—Cayuga Street—through town. Down that road, in the middle of Ithaca was First Presbyterian Church. Curious about the church, I parked my car and went in the rear door—I am not sure that I even knew that it was Sunday. On the other side of that door, I must have had the look of death on my face because the music director stopped what he was doing and ushered me into the sanctuary to sing in the choir. In the choir were local college students from Ithaca who were home for the holidays and who invited me to a sledding party that evening. After sledding that evening, I began attending First Presbyterian Church and, when I later became a member, the elders encouraged me to work with their high school kids, which I did for a season.
My discovery of First Presbyterian Church that Sunday morning was a divine intervention and it enabled me to cope with the depression so prevalent at that point in my life. Life took another curve in the following year as I learned that Cornell had admitted me to their doctoral program provisionally—students were expected to maintain an A average in their classes, which proved difficult for me because Cornell adhered to a traditional grading policy. The grade competition was fierce and collaboration among students was not actively encouraged, as was true at Iowa State, in part, because of the Wall Street influence on campus. Wall Street traders at at point still competed in an open-outcry market which meant that a trader either got the bid or not, as is the nature of competitive bidding. This competition sunk in for me when one day I organized a study group only to find when we got together that I was the only one who prepared to discuss the homework; later, members of the study group went on to ace the exam while I did not.
While I felt isolated from my competitive American peers, I increasingly felt at home with Hispanic students and I traded a relatively private office for a desk in the “United Nations” room where I shared a room with a large number of foreign students who studied with a beloved professor, who happened to be blind. The United Nations room was okay with me because I envisioned a career with the World Bank traveling throughout Latin America to visit investment projects and attend meetings, like some of my Washington friends. My goal of working in Latin American development meant that I fit right into my new office where I met colleagues who invited me to play in soccer games and to take part in other activities. One colleague also later became a roommate in the basement for a couple months before he took a job in Mexico City with the InterAmerican Development Bank. Meanwhile, during my first year at Cornell I studied Spanish and at the end of the year Cornell sent me to Puerto Rico for a summer’s study at the Estación Agrícola de Rio Piedras.
 Skiing was always a possibility in Ithaca because upstate New York has terribly cold winters with a lot of snow—including lake affect snow virtually every day as the cold wind blows across Lake Cayuga and deposits snow on Cornell which sits on the top an overlooking mountain.
 At one point, my marketing class visited a grain trading firm in New York City hosted by a trader who sorted through his mail while he talked with us—he never made eye contact with us.