September 13, 2018

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | On Finding Your Place At Cornell

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When I first arrived in Ithaca three years ago, I found myself taken aback by the general aura of Cornell. Everything seemed to exude excellence. The research, the students, even the buildings exceeded my expectations. Despite the repeated assurances of those around me, I could not shake the idea that, to exist in a place like Cornell, I too needed to be excellent. I spent most of my first semester in a state of constant worry that I could not meet this standard, and I struggled to integrate myself into the Cornell community. It would take over a year, and the kindness of quite a few senior students, for me to quash this belief and to find my place here.

The transition into any new academic program can be jarring. Some students can find their place easily, building camaraderie with other new students within their program or with student organizations they click with right away. Others, like me, can spend quite some time trying to find their space, their niche, here at Cornell. The diversity of first-year experiences here is too vast to enumerate. However, as I’ve had the opportunity to connect with more graduate and professional students each year, I have come to realize that many more students than I anticipated shared my experience of first-year isolation. Many of us expressed envy over the multitude of ways that the university invested in integrating first-year undergraduates into the Cornell community and expressed a desire for similar assistance for first-year graduate and professional students.

Throughout my conversations with students, certain factors seemed to repeatedly emerge as impacting the severity of first-year isolation. Students in programs where first-years often took the same coursework together seemed to build a sense of connection to their program faster than those who did not. Students that lived in housing complexes with a high-density of graduate and professional students often became friends with those who lived near them. Students that formed connections with senior students repeatedly mentioned these relationships as crucial for making them feel included. Finally, students with faculty advisors who encouraged them to pursue activities and hobbies outside of their academic responsibilities often joined student organizations and developed relationships within those organizations sooner.

Fortunately, many of these factors that ease the transition to Cornell for graduate and professional students can easily be adapted across campus. Academic programs can standardize first-year course work, even if it is limited to only one class, and can institutionalize mentorship programs that connect senior and first-year students. A continued investment in developing graduate and professional student housing, particularly those that employ these same students to help foster community building, can create physical and emotional hubs where students can meet and socialize with each other. Departments can also take the lead in changing the culture within their programs to encourage a healthy work-life balance, which is key to creating opportunities for students to build relationships with each other. As we move forward, we should strongly consider integrating these experiences into the first-year experience.

We cannot forget, though, that there is a group of graduate and professional students who are right now starting the process of finding their place here at Cornell. The most effective thing we can do to help connect these new students to our community is to actively include them. An invitation to grab lunch, go to the movies or to join a group for Tell Grads It’s Friday (TGIF) at the Big Red Barn can be the first step in helping someone find their place at Cornell. It sounds cheesy, but having experienced it first hand, this simple effort of inclusion can mean so much to a student who might be feeling alone. To any students who are struggling right now, let me speak from experience, and say that you will find your community here at Cornell. You will build relationships here with some of the most truly intelligent, passionate and kind-hearted people. I cannot promise that it will happen overnight, but I can promise that it will happen.

Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a PhD candidate at Cornell University. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester. Munasinghe can be reached at mmunasinghe@cornellsun.com.