May 1, 2011

After Your Days at Cornell: Now What?

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“How does the Cornell experience prepare students for success? Moving forward, how should young alumni use what they learned here, not just about academics, as they take on the real world?”

Those questions were on Sun Associate Editor Dani Neuharth-Keusch’s mind as she offered suggestions for my final column of the academic year. So, as Slope Day approaches and finals loom, here are some ideas that I hope may be helpful.

Virtually all of the seniors with whom I’ve talked in recent months expressed concern about their immediate prospects. At all times, but particularly in these uncertain times, facts help: Of the nearly three-quarters of the Class of 2010 who completed the Cornell Career Services postgraduate survey, 51.1 percent are employed, 32 percent are attending graduate or professional school and 16.9 percent are pursuing other endeavors, including volunteering, traveling and fulfilling compulsory military service.

With the job market slowly improving, prospects for the Class of 2011 are at least as bright as they were for last year’s graduates. I urge those who are graduating this year to complete the  2011postgraduate survey, and I invite those seniors who may still be seeking employment to attend one or more of the informal job-search strategy chats being offered by CCS between now and May 12. They are listed on the CCS online calendar.

Let’s look now to the longer-term prospects of life after Cornell. The Cornell student experience is as diverse as our students themselves, and so are the ways in which our alumni use what they learned here. Yet, in my conversations with students and alumni over the years, three characteristics of the Cornell experience stand out as especially important.

First is academic preparation, which at Cornell is broad and deep. No other Ivy League institution and few other universities of any kind offer as broad a choice of educational opportunities as does Cornell. You’ve been taught by faculty members who are world leaders in their fields or are on their way to becoming such leaders — and Cornell’s academic excellence embraces all the major academic groupings: the humanities and the arts, life sciences and agricultural sciences, physical sciences and engineering, social sciences and the professional schools.

By the time you earn a Cornell degree, you should have disciplinary knowledge, along with skills in critical thinking, communication, scientific and quantitative reasoning, information literacy, engagement in the process of discovery or creation and the capacity for self-directed learning. These academic competencies will continue to provide advantages in the job market and enable you to pursue new opportunities, and even new careers, throughout your working lives.

Second, students remind me that Cornell offers so many ways to learn and contribute beyond the classroom, studio and laboratory and that these experiences are an important part of Cornell for them. Distinguished visitors spend time with faculty and students and share their wisdom in public lectures or other events. This semester brought, among many others, best-selling author Margaret Atwood, political commentators and media personalities Fareed Zakaria and Keith Olbermann ’79, and hotelier Harris Rosen ’61, Cornell’s Entrepreneur of 2011 and a pioneer in providing self-insured health care to his employees and education to those in the surrounding community of Tangelo Park, Fl.

Cornell students, who come from every state in the nation and some 112 other countries, find places on project teams, athletic teams, public service initiatives and many other extracurricular activities that provide a foundation for later professional and community life. With their widely varying interests, cultures and backgrounds, Cornell students mirror our global society. By working together and learning from each other beyond the classroom, they have the opportunity to develop multicultural competence, moral and ethical awareness and skills in responsible decision-making and community engagement that are increasingly essential in our interconnected world. Indeed one of the characteristics that set Cornell graduates apart from their peers elsewhere is that they continue to be involved members of their communities wherever they are in the world.

And third, to an uncommon extent, Cornell graduates remain connected to the University long after they leave the campus. Being a “Cornellian for life” is more than a slogan. It reflects the lifelong connection that so many Cornellians maintain with the University and their strong desire to continue to be involved. That sense of connection makes our alumni eager to mentor students or respond to their questions about careers in information interviews. And it inspires alumni around the world to devote time and energy to Cornell activities, including service on college and University councils and on our Board of Trustees.

You may think I am referring largely to philanthropy when I call for lifelong connection to the alma mater. Of course, support from our very, very generous alumni is part of our edge of excellence and makes possible more robust need-based student financial aid, the recruitment and retention of extraordinary faculty and the development of cutting-edge facilities. But I am talking here about the advice, feedback and volunteer activities that make Cornell what it is. After all, leaders — including presidents — are relatively “short-timers” in the life of an institution that is approaching its sesquicentennial. Alumni stay connected with the life of the University for decades.

Recognizing the wisdom to be gained from alumni at all life stages, our Alumni Association has recently intensified efforts aimed at students and young alumni. We hope to make the alumni connection immediately relevant by exploring networking opportunities and pressing school-to-work issues, and we are in the process of establishing a young alumni advisory council, whose advice I will take as seriously as I do that of alumni who have been “out” for decades.

And in those three critical components of the Cornell experience — academic excellence, the opportunity to learn through shared activities outside of class and lifelong involvement — lies the answer to the second part of Dani’s question: how to use what you’ve learned here as you take on the “real world.”

Cornell’s strategic plan notes that our University has a “special and unique capacity to bridge the world of thought and ideas and the world of practice and action,” and to combine “liberal education and fundamental knowledge with practical education and impact on societal and world problems.” As Cornell graduates, each of you will find your own distinctive way to make your mark on the world, and on societal and world problems, whether through your professional practice, your civic commitments or your lifelong connection to your alma mater.

For those who are continuing on at the University, have a great summer and see you next fall. For those who are graduating, congratulations, much success and please stay in touch.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at david.skorton@cornell.edu. From David appears monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton