October 24, 2018

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Finding the Public Purpose Behind My Cornell Education

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Earlier this month, a recent Cornell alumna shared with me that her years at Cornell were “the hardest four years of her life but the best training she could have received for the real world.” Half of my heart is hoping this is true. These past few weeks have been some of the most challenging I have faced during my time at Cornell. Academics are in full swing, extra curricular activities are having peak programming, the sun is starting to splinter away and personal conflicts are running amuck.

While my Cornell career isn’t a storybook tale, my conversation with the alumnus made me recalibrate my emotions towards my Cornell experience, framing it as a training ground for life and that what we learn are lessons we will take with us will hopefully better the world.

I chose Cornell after an ILR postcard came in the mail with the tagline “Are you a leader?” and I remember thinking what that would mean for my life after Cornell. It’s not a stretch to believe that we sit next to future leaders of government and industry. It’s not a stretch to think that we ourselves will enter roles of influence. As an institution, we hold historical roots as a land grant institution. It is hard to pinpoint what a typical Cornell experience is due to our expansive academic disciplines and our decentralized social structure. The classes that we take, the clubs that we join all impact a very personal definition of the Cornell experience. What I believe should be consistent between individuals on campus would be a commitment to find a public purpose behind their education. In many ways, I see our time at Cornell as a perfect way to do just that: to practice ways in which our studies can impact the world.

We are given opportunities to advocate, to fight for change when we see injustice. We are given the resources to engage critically with the structures of systemic oppression that occur in our society. As Cornell students, I firmly believe it is our role to leverage our education towards a more just world. A great example of students exercising their voice is the impact that student activism has at our institution. I applaud and affirm the Mental Health Awareness Week planning committee for putting forth recommendations to improve mental health services on our campus and to the People’s Organizing Collective campaign for their work regarding the student contribution fee. This fire in us to fight for change doesn’t just stay at Cornell, but should continue to burn well after graduation.

The role that Cornell students play in our greater society is immense, and I believe we should be thinking on how we can instill that civic responsibility within every member of our community. Engaged Cornell is a great start, and initiative to “promote faculty, staff and students partnering with community members to address global issues.” My hope is that this mindset is something that we can all share, that all faculty feel the same way — that the classroom can also serve as a way to develop leaders. The Public Service Center is a resource that “provides local, national, and international public service opportunities to Cornell students, faculty, and alumni.” For me, my most memorable Cornell experiences have been participating in programs like Alternative Spring Breaks, working closely with communities through ILR Global Service Learning Programs and volunteering in the Ithaca community.

While these experiences are formative, it is important to acknowledge that there are financial barriers to students accessing these opportunities. There are resources on campus such as grants and financial support that students can apply for, but in my opinion the demand should not outweigh the supply. If students are hoping to pursue opportunities toward public service and community engagement, we should work diligently to deconstruct barriers in place. If there isn’t enough money to support all students who are hoping to pursue these initiatives, we should be mending the gap that exists, restricting students from engaging with communities. My hope is that we can begin ensuring that this public mission is intentionally met through academic initiatives that span all disciplines at Cornell. I hope we can continue to invest in these opportunities to ensure that all students are supported as they pioneer a lifetime of public engagement characteristic of who we aspire to be as Cornellians.