February 12, 2017

WANG | The Seven Degrees of Cornell

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“Hey, Adrian?”

“Yeah?”

I’ve stopped in my tracks now, and I’m looking back at the Arts Quad. It’s a typical Monday afternoon during dry December, and the streams of people flooding into the center of the school has gotten me doing mathematical gymnastics in my head.

“How many people did you say were at Cornell?”

He pauses for a second.

“21,000, I think, if you count grads and professors.”

I cock back my head in surprise: no seriously?

But he was right. In terms of breathing, functional human beings on Cornell, there are around 21,000 here daily. And based on simple mathematics and a reasonable social life, you might be lucky to meet just five percent of them during a typical four years stay here.

“C’mon man. I don’t want to waste time here. We got a program assignment due soon.”

And that was that.

****

I still couldn’t believe it when Narhee Kim showed up one day during my high school accounting class, sporting a Cornell 2020 shirt that matched exactly mine. “Narhee, you’re going to Cornell too?”

“Yep!”

I asked what major she was pursuing.

“Applied Economics and Management.”

My jaw dropped. That was my major. I didn’t believe it. What were the odds of a high school sending two kids from the same class into the same school, same major? Later, because I gotten in early decision, and her regular decision, I’d make the joke that she followed me here, and that she’d probably follow me into our new jobs after graduation. She didn’t like that idea one bit.

****

Narhee wasn’t my only connection back from high school. There’s Nicole, who rows at a top 30 pace for crew in her age group. She does animal science, and her concentration?

Sharks.

Yowza. I still can’t believe someone would want to work with sharks every day, but maybe I’ve watched too many Jaws movies. They’re quite harmless, she pleads. “Did you know that toasters kill more people each year than sharks?”

How?

“People put their forks into them, and they electrocute you.”

Ah. That makes more sense. And in terms of human nature, it sounds about right. Sometimes, stupidity is more lethal than mother’s nature’s top-of-the-line killing machine.

And then there’s Olivia, who doesn’t like to be called short. She’s a plant major by day, badminton zealot by night. She spends four hours each day at Cornell’s Helen Newman gym, playing Badminton with the Badminton club, getting tutelage from her mentor, Alex. Sometimes, I stop by and ask her how it’s going. She gives me a quick thumbs up, a cursory glance and resumes playing. She’s determined, despite her disadvantageous height, to play badminton for the French Olympic badminton team, as she’s a French citizen. I’d tell her if she’s game for 2020, I’d fly to Tokyo to just watch her play. She laughs it off, but I can tell she’s serious. Anything’s possible.

***

Emily’s wired the same. She wants to be a doctor, and God help anyone who gets in her way. She’s taking 20 credits, and has gotten a mountain of homework to do. Sometimes, we watch the Simpsons when we’re down, but then it’s right back to work. She wants to get an MD-PHD (“it saves money that way”), and I’m not sure she’ll settle for less. The jokes about Asian doctors write themselves, but I think it misses the point: it’s not automatic, it’s not given. Being Asian doesn’t make it any easier. She’s competing against the top one percent in the world for the top one percent profession in America. People today in this country are too eager to write off elites as out of touch, but they don’t see the work that gets them there.

One day, she sends me a snapchat. An “A-“is written in chalk on the sidewalk next to Balch. Her caption?

The Horror.

I sigh. That’s so Emily.

***

But if Olivia and Emily are laser focused on one idea, Michelle’s a kaleidoscopic. She’s a pre-med and AEM double major, certain she can manage both. She has her own YouTube channel, and “it’s going to make us famous!” She’s obsessed with K-drama, electronic music and grades. She’s got a million things on her mind, running faster than the speed of light.

In the middle of our spreadsheet modeling assignment, she gets a bit impatient when we trip up on a problem. She’s got 22 credits to deal with, and two jobs. She’s on the edge of her seat.

“William, I gotta do this, this, this and this….”

Some people want one thing in life. She wants it all.

***

Yet it’s hard to stay impressed with one person. Cornell has a funny way of making the spectacular seem normal. And in this final instance it’s Div, my suitemate from India. He talks in a rushed, garbled hush, but it’s deceiving. His mind is a weapon of mass creation. He spends his days programming code with jargon that looks like Sanskrit. Sometimes I get curious and knock on his door.

“Div?”

“Yeah?”

“What’s up man?”

He shows me his code for the advanced CS class he’s taking. It sprawls and collapses in various blocks, as it looks like the tumbling green code from The Matrix. He’s programmed an evolutionary game, where users simulate a natural ecology system for animals (“Critters”) that eat each other. The animal left standing at the end move on to the next round, and gain strength points. The game can be played on multiple laptops, as it’s hooked up to the Wi-Fi server. It’s a relatively small game, but the code is mind bogglingly complex.

Just today, I stopped by his dorm for another chat.  I give the procedural, “What’s up?”

He shrugs, rubs his hands in as if he’s cold, and smiles sheepishly.

“Preparing for an interview with Facebook,” he replies, casually.

All I can do is laugh. I’m not even surprised at this point. The mantra, “it’s who you know, not what you know,” has never been truer.

And I can’t wait until I know all 21,000 people.

William Wang is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester. 

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