March 5, 2013

Over Tea, Skorton Talks About His Life, Successes, Failures

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President David Skorton joined more than 50 students for tea and cookies in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall to talk about successes and failures throughout his life Tuesday.

Skorton was introduced by Saadiya Mutawakil ’14, a member of Cornell Minds Matter, as a successful person who had overcome failure.

“When you think of President Skorton, you may think of a doctor or administrator, but today you get to hear a little bit more. He believes that even with failure, you can become a doctor, a dancer or a president of an Ivy League institution,” Mutawakil said.

Skorton began the talk with a joke about Billy Joel not calling him back to go on tour –– a reference to the artist’s performance last year, when Skorton joined him on stage to play the flute.

Using his life as an example, Skorton stressed the serendipity of life and said that failures do not determine one’s life.

“Life is very hard to predict … not impossible, but very hard. Setbacks, or things we call failure, should be looked at as one more thing on a journey, and not your overall path,” Skorton said.

Skorton spoke of his childhood as a first-generation American and his immigrant family’s financial struggle. His family, originally immigrants from Belarus, moved to Cuba and later Milwaukee, Wi.

“We had a profound amount of financial problems when I was a kid, as [do] most of the Eastern Europeans there,” he said. Skorton’s family later moved to Los Angeles and managed a shoe store, being comfortable in the Hispanic environment from their fluency in Spanish. “I grew up in a multilingual home, with no one having finished or been to college,” he added.

Originally dreaming of a career in music, but discouraged by his father, Skorton said he decided to go to University of California at Los Angeles like his high school classmates before transferring to Northwestern University.

“I really connect with transfer students, since I knew how hard it was to start without a class X or Y at Northwestern, but I still made friends,” he said. “I did not have a super great GPA. I wasn’t premed in my heart. I was a [psychology] major, undecided until junior year.”

His largest academic failure occurred in medical school, he said, when he failed a microscope class.

“This was a pass-fail honors school, and the faculty was very student-oriented, so they were concerned. The teacher took me to his lab and tutored me in the material I failed,” he said. “He gave me the confidence to try again.”

Skorton closed the event by answering questions from the public regarding his thoughts about being a public figure, teaching at Cornell and decisions he has regretted making.

Skorton also emphasized the importance of mental health resources at Cornell.

The event was sponsored by Cornell Minds Matter, an organization that seeks to promote overall student mental and emotional health.

“CMM was created in 2004 [by] students who were worried about mental illness, but now the organization has expanded to health management and student life, I consider CMM to be a big part of the caring community at Cornell,” he said. “I think all of us are responsible for each other all the time. When we forget about interdependence is when we fail as a society.”

Angelica Cullo ’15, head event organizer of CMM, said she thought the story of Skorton failing a course at medical school was an especially relevant topic to introduce to students.

“It’s really important to encourage and reassure students to keep everything in perspective and keep balanced, even if they don’t succeed at something,” Cullo said.

Emily Bastarache ’14, who helped organize the event, said she felt the talk was successful.

“It gives a face to the [University] president,” she said. “I had never met him, and it was a nice opportunity to have him voice his opinions. I identified with a lot of the struggles he felt through college, and it’s important for students to know that and understand.”

Original Author: Kevin Milian