December 2, 2014

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Cindy van Es: Statistics Enthusiast, Diversity Expert

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When she is not teaching statistics classes, Prof. Cindy van Es, applied economics and management, can be found advising one of her seven student organizations, running her diversity promotion programs or working with a Kenyan grade school.

Van Es — who has been chosen as the “most influential faculty member” by Cornell’s Merrill Presidential Scholars Program eight times — has also won the Inclusive Excellence Award from Ernst and Young and was named one of the 300 Best College Professors by The Princeton Review.

Professor Cindy van Es (Riley Yuan / Sun Staff Photographer)

Professor Cindy van Es (Riley Yuan / Sun Staff Photographer)

Professor Cindy van Es (Riley Yuan / Sun Staff Photographer)

While van Es said she appreciates all of her honors, she said The Princeton Review award meant most to her because it was “largely” determined by student feedback.

“What meant a lot to me for the 300 [best professors award] was that it was largely student driven,” van Es said. “That, in the end, is really what it comes down to: my impact on students.”

According to van Es, her success in the classroom comes from her eagerness to work with students.

“I think a lot about the atmosphere in the class,” she said. “I feel a lot like if they’re going to work, then I’ll do everything [I can].”

Van Es added that she spends a lot of time both in and out of the classroom pursuing what she calls her “other love,” diversity and inclusiveness.

Van Es, who also teaches smaller classes and advises student organizations that promote diversity, is responsible for the Dyson School Diversity Program, which awards the Perkins Prize for Interracial Harmony.

While she said that Cornell is likely similar to other schools in terms of diversity, she added that she believes the University still has to do a lot of work to achieve thorough inclusivity.

“You have to learn to work with people different than yourself, and I don’t think there are as many opportunities as there could be,” she said. “One of the things I try to do is build opportunities for [students] to work with each other.”

Though Van Es came to Cornell in 1988, she said she always knew what career track she wanted to follow.

“Since [I was] about seven or eight, [when people would ask,] ‘What do you want to be?’ [I would say] ‘I want to be a math teacher,’” she said.

Van Es added she was then drawn to the field of statistics due to its applicability and practicality to real-life situations.

“I wanted a more applied math — I didn’t just want to do theory,” she said. “So I really liked statistics because it was math applied to real problems.”

Van Es added that her dedication to inclusivity has enabled her to build lasting relationships with many students. She said she receives anywhere between 60 to 70 Christmas cards from former students every winter and usually attends at least one former student’s wedding a year.

According to van Es, these relationships with her students have proven rewarding because of the unique character of the Cornell student body.

“They’ve done great things in this world — they’re smart intellectually, driven and ambitious, and yet … a lot of them have just a lot of kindness,” she said.

Van Es also shared an anecdote about a student who had been involved in one of her extracurricular programs several years ago.

She described him as “serious” and “disciplined,” but said she knew there was “a lot going on underneath.”

“And then I remember I got a call [from him] … and he’s like ‘Cindy, I want to start a program to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for women who have obstetric fistulas,” she said.

This particular idea turned into Mountains for Moms, a club which van Es said she still advises.

Van Es said she has recently spent much of her free time planning a two-week South African study abroad trip that she will lead next month, adding that she took a sabbatical last spring to design the program.

Van Es said she usually spends a lot of her time outside of the classroom working on a partnership that she helped establish between her kids’ school and a grade school in Kenya.

She said she has visited the school twice — once, inadvertently, at the outbreak of the Kenyan civil war — and helped to expand its facilities and capabilities monumentally.

“[Working with the Kenyan school] is kind of my hobby, to be honest,” she said.

When students come to her for career advice, van Es said that she always tells them the same thing.

“Get all the information about all the jobs out there. … Talk to your parents, talk to your friends, your professors, your advisors, whoever mentors you — collect that information,” she said. “Then, go for a walk in the Plantations, and stop and say, ‘Where do I want to go?’ and listen to that voice.”