June 3, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 72°F

Life & Culture

Sunny weather in Ithaca encourages students to go outdoors

On the rare occasion that Ithaca sees a sunny day between the months of October and April, Ithaca College’s campus comes to life. Students often choose to do their work outside, play games on the quads or sit and have a picnic with their friends between classes. There is often a noticeable difference in the number of students spending time outside on campus on days when the sun is out.

Ithaca is prone to a much colder, grayer atmosphere in the winter. The average temperature from November through February is far below freezing and much colder than the national average, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University. 

The presence of seasonal depression — also known as seasonal affective disorder — can also be a big factor in people who have a declining mood in the winter. And populations that are further from the equator or at a higher latitude are at higher risk of seasonal affective disorder, according to the Journal for American College Health. Ithaca’s distance from the ocean, mountains and its placement in the middle latitudes — the area roughly 35–65 degrees between the North and South poles — all account for unpredictable weather patterns, according to the Cornell Daily Sun.

Many students at the college have expressed their discontent at the endless gray skies for what seems to be a never-ending winter. Junior Richard Morris said he feels like the overcast sky just dampens his mood. Morris also has an emotional support dog on campus named Bojack and said he often is able to go on extra long walks, often through campus and the natural lands, now that the seemingly permanent slush is off the sidewalks and roads. 

“I’ll definitely take Bo for an extra long walk or two when the days are warmer and brighter for longer,” Morris said. “It’s also way nicer now to have clean sidewalks without mud, slush and ice salt that gets in his paws.” 

From left, first-year student Owen Loiacono and junior Camille Cooke play their guitars under the shade of a tree after another long and cold Ithaca winter. Xinyi Qin/The Ithacan


Morris, along with other students, finds it much easier to get active or be outside on days when the sun is out. Although a strong connection has not been made between specifically warmer weather and improved mood, when the skin absorbs more sunlight, it produces more serotonin, a neurochemical that helps regulate mood and sleep, according to the Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience Journal. A lack of serotonin in the body can lead to depression and anxiety. So even when the weather is not 70 degrees, days with a clear and sunny sky might help improve students’ moods.

John Witkiewicz, mental health counselor in the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, said he has emphasized the importance of getting outside to many of his clients and is trying to bring it to even more students now. Since starting at CAPS in Spring 2023, he has been working to revive the Nature Rx program at the college. 

Nature Rx is a program adopted from Parks Rx, a national movement by mental health professionals as well as the National Park Service, to encourage more and more people to be prescribed time outside, often in a park, as the name suggests, either by a medical or social professional, or by themself. Cornell University currently has a Nature Rx program and Witkiewicz said he is looking to revive this program at Ithaca College, as it has been largely dormant since the COVID-19 pandemic, and hopes to involve the partnership between Hammond Health Center and Cayuga Medical Associates. Witkiewicz has spent much of his career focused on the impact of nature, and being outside on people’s mental health. As someone who spends a lot of time hiking, camping and trail running, he said he knows firsthand how powerful getting outside can be.

“In college I really got into hiking and climbing,” Witkiewicz said. “I studied abroad in the Himalayas, which was a lot of things like that every day,” Witkiewicz said. “And then I lived in Colorado, a hub for the kind of outdoor activities I was doing. But here, there’s a lower energy level, there’s less sun and I think that just de-motivates people. It can feel sleepier here, I guess. There’s a stronger urge to stay in bed and not do anything sometimes.”

It is hard to collect hard numbers on how much going outside helps exactly, since mental health cannot be quantified. However, Witkiewicz said that both he and his clients were able to feel calmer and less stressed after spending time out on a sunny day or trekking through the natural lands.

Junior Dylan Raisch uses chalk to draw an image on the concrete. Studies have shown that increased exposure to sunlight can help produce more serotonin. Jadyn Davis/The Ithacan

Sophomore Ryan Williams-Abrams said he always seems to forget how much the sun impacts his mood. Williams-Abrams said he never thinks a sunny day will help as much as it does. 

“My mood improves significantly whenever the sun is out, and I seem to always forget that it will be until it is,” Williams-Abrams said. “The sun comes out, and my seasonal depression is instantly cured by the vitamin D I get.”

Seasonal depression, like any kind of depression, has a major impact on mood and motivation, but the key difference is the bodily reaction to a lack of sunlight. Mental and physical health were key factors in periods of lower productivity, according to a study done by professors at Cambridge University and Charles University. 

Junior Savannah O’Connor said she tries to take advantage of days with good weather on the off chance they come around. Her ways of appreciating the nice weather range from taking long walks or just sitting outside with her roommates. She said she often tries to spend as much time outside as possible on warm and sunny days. 

“I always try to find a reason to be outside whenever we get a random nice day,” O’Connor said. “Sitting outside at one of the picnic tables, or my roommates like to take walks or watch the sunset. I just really love sunny days to be honest.”

But this energy does not just get channeled into exercise or simply going outside; students like Williams-Abrams also feel more motivated to go to class and finish their schoolwork in the rare moments of clear skies and minimal wind chill. He said many days when he wakes up and sees a dreary sky, he feels like going back to bed and skipping all the work he has to do, but it is the opposite once the sun is out. 

“I mean, once the sun peaks out and glances through my Emerson window … man, I am a workaholic.” Williams-Abrams said. “Sometimes I wish we could just take the Ithaca culture and plop it somewhere warm.”

First-year student Elliot O’Connor does work on a blanket outside Upper Quads. Many students choose to spend their time lounging outside on sunnier days. Xinyi Qin/The Ithacan

O’Connor is a bit of the opposite. She said she prefers to be outside instead of doing work and often asks professors to have class outside on unexpectedly nice days. Being outside has often been associated with more positive mental health outcomes, according to the American Psychological Association. There are plenty of on and off-campus ways to get outside and enjoy the weather. The famous gorges around Ithaca, like Buttermilk Falls, Ithaca Falls or the many others in town, are different ways to enjoy being outside while also getting to know the area better

Even without leaving campus, there are still many ways to get active and get outside, whether it is with friends or through extracurricular clubs, like the Ithaca College Nature Club. Members of the IC Nature Club meet outside, weather permitting, to walk around and find the best landmarks, coolest rocks and prettiest flowers the campus has to offer. Founded in Fall 2022, the club aims to make people more comfortable outside and make appreciating the natural world around us more accessible. Senior Bethany Holland, who is the founder and president of the club, said she wants to make people realize how beautiful nature is on campus, especially now that more plants are coming into bloom. 

“It’s nice to just walk around and appreciate the beauty around us, even if you’re not looking for one specific thing like how the flowers look,” Holland said. “And we really try to take advantage of all of the different places around campus, so that means going to the natural lands or next to the academic buildings and looking for things to appreciate there as well.”

Although there is still much to find and appreciate on the days without picturesque weather that the club meets, like animals that are more visible when it is raining or different cold weather habitats, the club members’ favorite days are the sunny and warm ones. Holland said that the club’s most attended meetings are those on nicer days and that the group often can find something to appreciate, even if what they are appreciating is just some fresh air. Students do not have to be a member to join the club’s walks at 4 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays that leave in front of Campus Center near Williams Hall. Holland said anyone looking to get some more fresh air and cool nature facts in their life is more than welcome to come to their meetings.