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Jamaica to Ithaca: My advice to anyone moving from the tropics to the cold

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

It's a change. It's not just a temperature delta of over 60 degrees Fahrenheit, but also a change in lifestyle, scenery and people. And the truth is, it's a really hard change. But not an impossible one, especially once you know how to manage your expectations.

As I'm writing this, there's a "winter storm" outside my window in Ithaca, and the temperature is below 0 degrees Celsius. I recently got back from a visit home to Jamaica for February break, so I've had a reset of the temperature shock that I usually experience when I return to school at the start of every Spring semester. That renewed temperature shock made me reflect on what it means to be a tropically-grown person living in a frigid ice-box like Ithaca.

The 4 main things that I want to discuss are the following:

Each of these points are almost like milestones or checkpoints that I went through in my transition to Ithacan weather, and I'm excited to share my experience with each one.

1. Seasons

Growing up in Jamaica, the weather and climate is pretty constant year round. Trees are always green, skies are always blue and while we have do get "Christmas breeze" at the end of the year, the temperature also stays relatively constant. In my time living in Jamaica, to be honest (and kind of somewhat but not really joking), the most notable things I can remember about changing seasons are fruit seasons like mango season, exam seasons in the spring when the poui trees would turn yellow and shed their flowers, lobster season when I can go to Hellshire and get lobster, and hurricane season when we would be on watch for increased rainfall.

Moving to the East Coast of the United States, I'll never forget seeing my first fall, then my first winter, then spring and summer. There's something so distinct about experiencing the changes in the scenery - from the leaves turning brown and leaving the trees with just their branches, to the snow covering those branches all the way to the cherry blossoms in March and April. While we're fortunate to have beautiful warm weather year round in the Caribbean, the change in seasons has to be one of the best things about living in Ithaca, a place where nature and landscapes are the predominant draws to the area. I even took a couple pictures of Thurston Falls on Cornell's campus throughout the seasons, which I'll share with you here. Just wow.




2. Snow & Winter Weather

Continuing on my first point, something that's always been a pleasure for me is the snow! Studying at Cornell wasn't my first time seeing snow, but it was my first time seeing the season change from Fall to Winter, and the way in which my environment took on a whole new character with a different set of weather conditions. In my Freshman year of college in 2019, there was a huge snowstorm just after Thanksgiving that dumped feet of snow onto Cornell's campus, and of course gave me the pleasure of building snowmen, having snowball fights and sledding down the slope. Throughout my time at Cornell, I've always cherished the times when it snows, and in retrospect, it's definitely because to me it's a welcome change to the warm weather I grew up in.

When it snows heavily in Ithaca, especially on Cornell's campus, it's such a beautiful thing to see because of how well landscaped the grounds are and how untouched the snow is in many parts. It's a stark contrast to snow in Manhattan, for example, where you'll find dirty black snow that's been polluted by traffic and garbage which really isn't pleasant to see. Moving to the cold, you'll definitely feel like a kid if its your first time seeing snow, and for some reason, I still haven't gotten over the excited feeling that I get every time it snows heavily. Unfortunately, I haven't seen proper heavy snow fall here this semester yet, and it's looking unlikely given that we're already in March. We'll see though.

3. Dressing for the Weather

2 things: Winter Coat. Puffer Jacket.

Funnily enough, when I first got to Cornell, once the temperature starting falling in like October, I was that freshman walking around in my winter coat every. single. day. I didn't care if it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit or 20 degrees Fahrenheit, I put on my coat every single day because that's all I had, and it kept me warm. I also didn't have any notion of "Fall fashion" or anything of the sort because my mind was very concerned only with staying warm. It wasn't a matter of "how do I look" rather than "how do I feel?". Chances are, if you're coming to the cold from a tropical country, you're gonna arrive with the same exact mindset. "Keep warm at all costs, mi neva build fi dis."

Over the years, however, I've learnt that a winter coat/parka isn't necessarily appropriate for all slight feelings of being cold. I invested in a puffer jacket, which I now use when it's cold-but-not-too-cold, and I also got used to not wearing my Timberland boots everyday once there was even a little snow on the ground. I've learnt how to better dress for different seasons, and have come to appreciate not only the style, but also the functionality of having lighter, yet still warm-enough layers to wear throughout each season. It really was a hassle to wear my parka everywhere even when it wasn't that cold, because it's a huge, heavy coat, so I definitely appreciate having a good puffer to substitute.

If you're someone who grew up on the East Coast reading this, you're probably thinking, "duh??" but the truth is, we're used to wearing the same kinds of clothes all year round in the Caribbean, so adapting style and learning how to layer and dress in different seasons is something that we have to learn.

4. Seasonal depression & coping with the change

When I first visited Cornell in the April before my Freshman year in 2019, this is something that I heard A LOT about. And to be honest, the kind of person that I am, I brushed it off and figured, "eh, that won't bother me". The truth is, usually during the winter season when the days are all grey and gloomy, I'm usually so happy about any snowfall that the seasonal depression part of it sort of misses me. I usually make it through the winter with no problems. But this seasonal depression thing? It's real. And for the first time in my 4 years at Cornell, I really felt it this semester. I'm not sure if it's because I'm no longer as fascinated by the snow, or if it's because I just studied abroad in Spain where the weather was pretty great and didn't get as cold as in Ithaca, or maybe because we haven't had a huge snowstorm that I can go outside and sled in, but the cold and grey was doing exactly that to me - making me feel cold and grey.

Being back in Jamaica, I had the chance to soak up sun again, and get a fill of Vitamin D (which by the way, is super important for your mental and physical health). It wasn't until I was actually in Jamaica laying in the sun that I realized that what I was experiencing was likely seasonal depression. In Jamaica I felt renewed and my spirits were automatically lifted by the sun itself, and it made me realize that I hadn't been in the sun in a while, and was very likely deficient in Vitamin D at the time.

If you're from the tropics and going to study in a cold climate, seriously, beware. You might not even notice it because it's something that's completely new to you, but seasonal depression is a real thing that can affect your mental health and productivity very seriously. Make sure you check in on yourself throughout the winter season and ensure that you're doing okay, because otherwise you could find your mood and attitude to work and people changing and not know how to solve it.

And that's my advice to you if you're from the tropics and going to go live in the cold! To put it simple enjoy the changes, embrace the climate, adapt to the weather and take care of yourself. It's already a new society that you have to navigate in terms of norms and behaviours (and don't even get me started on language and accent), so ensuring that you know how to manage your expectations with regards to your environment too is a great way to help yourself to adapt and make the most of your new home.

Thanks for reading!

Until next Sunday,

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Domonique Folkes
Domonique Folkes
Mar 05, 2023

Loved this!! The dirty Manhattan snow took me all the way out. Keep sharing your stories. I look forward to them every week :)

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