When it comes to our education timeline, we all like to think linearly and in absolute terms. We do well in high school, go to a good college, get a job or go to graduate school. We churn through our daily homework and prep for our tests; we network and interview, conscious of putting out best foot forward to secure our career interest. The slightest derailment leads to waves of anxiety — being left behind is a fear shared amongst students here. College students don’t do well when left in uncertainty. For most Cornell undergraduates, educational purgatory can be a maddeningly stressful experience.
But a group of Cornell students have already gone through purgatory, and came out unscathed. Transfer students are a significant subset of the student population: Including spring transfers, Cornell accepts about 700 transfers student per year, with about half going to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and a fifth going to the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
Applying as a transfer can feel a little like auditioning for a school play. If you’re not one of the guaranteed transfers at Cornell (where spend one year at another school, and if you do well, you enroll at Cornell the following year), the transfer road to Cornell can be daunting and fraught with uncertainty, filled with spending time taking required classes and maintaining a minimum GPA for transfers.
Two of my high school classmates recently reached out to me about transferring to Cornell in the spring. One is currently studying at a very high-end STEM school, working on his engineering degree; the other, at a nearby SUNY school. We’ll call them Cory and Jason, respectively. What struck me was their motivations for coming to Cornell — Cory had been left disenchanted by his school, finding he didn’t enjoy the school as much as he had hoped, and Jason had yearned to jump, in his mind, to a better school that would enhance his career prospects.
Both are naturally smart, but had taken diverging paths to get here. Cory had excelled in high school, being involved in multiple clubs and holding a pristine academic record. He’d passed on an acceptance to Cornell and taken his spot at the high end STEM school. But it was Jason who had the unusual backstory. Unlike Cory, he didn’t win the awards and applause of school administrators; he was lost in a sea of struggling students. Having not done as well in high school as other students, teachers and peers alike dismissed him
He didn’t enjoy that thought. From there began an arduous trek to prove something to others. In college, he clawed his way past students that achieved at a far higher level in high school, and joined clubs where he quickly shot up to hold important positions. With a new urgency, he didn’t take his education for granted. He recalled, almost bemused, telling his former guidance counselor about how well he done at college, and her response was essentially: “Really?”
He liked the surprise. It was his way of knowing that the guy who had left high school was not the same guy now. For some people, things click a little later.
He’d also taken the time to reach out to me, and one day, when we hadn’t spoken in years, he sent me a quick message to see if I could host him for a visit at Cornell. I was surprised (there’s that word again), but agreed.
When we met, he talked about his time away from Cornell and the journey he had taken to get here. Very few people would have bet on him coming this close, but here he was, talking about the application process he had completed, and the essays he had to write. His application essay ruminated on his path to Cornell, and why, after all these years, a light flickered on.
“I just realized the importance of school to my future career.”
He poured all his energy into getting into Cornell, spending hours scouring the school website to choose the school to which he would apply, and making sure he completed the transfer requirements. Even if he didn’t get in, the mere idea of Cornell had spurred him to a level he thought he could never reach. At one point, he admits just how surreal this whole situation was:
“I’d never thought I’d get this far. I’d never thought I be in this position to get into an elite school like Cornell.”
It’s a biting phrase, full of hope and a tinge of “what if”s. So much had changed in so little time. It’s easy to gauge a person at 18 and say you can predict their life based on their accomplishments up to that point. But if extrapolation is unreliable in statistics, then it’s downright foolish to do the same for a human being.
At the end of his visit, we climbed the stands overlooking Schoellkopf Field, gazing over the last remnants of homecoming. None of it feels alien to him. It feels like almost home — in his mind, he’d already chosen Cornell. Now all they had to do was choose him.
William Wang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester.