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Sahara and Christopher Byrne

February 13, 2019

From Italy to Ithaca, Married Cornell Professors Share Their Love Stories

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Prof. Eibenstein-Alvisi and Prof. Alvisi’s story started long before they began teaching at Cornell.

The couple met while attending high school at ages 15 and 17, respectively, in their home city of Bologna, Italy. They were both enrolled in the same extracurricular English class in high school. The two corrected each other’s version of the story as it was told.

In honor of Valentine’s Day this Thursday, The Sun sat down with married Cornell professors to chat about how they met, what it’s like to work together and to share Ithaca date ideas.

Professor Irene Eibenstein-Alvisi, Department of Romance Studies

Professor Lorenzo Alvisi, Department of Computer Science

Alvisi and Eibenstein-Alvisi recalled how they found each other long ago, thousands of miles from Ithaca.

“I kept forgetting my writing devices, like pens and pencils, so I could go to her and be like, ‘hey,’ in this very clever way,” Alvisi joked.

After marrying in 1988, the two ended up pursuing doctorate degrees — his in computer science and hers in romance studies — at Cornell, and it became a place that “always stayed in our heart,” Alvisi said.

The couple moved to teach at the University of Texas, Austin, but returned to Cornell in 2016. They said that coming back to Cornell has been like going back to graduate school.

“We have basically gone back to an old mode of life that is very much like our graduate student days. We walk to campus together, we try to sync up together during the day and then have dinner together,” Alvisi said.

“It keeps us very young,” Eibenstein-Alvisi added.

In terms of working together, not only did Eibenstein-Alvisi and Alvisi co-teach a course at the University of Texas, but Eibenstein-Alvisi stated that “there are only advantages,” both in terms of getting to learn more about the other’s subjects, and to improve each other’s courses.

“[Eibenstein-Alvisi] is always thinking, I try to as well, but it is just so inspirational to see how she goes, ‘how do I take this lecture and make it better,’ and just how enthusiastic she is,” Alvisi said. “It’s wonderful.”

Eibenstein-Alvisi commented how she “is in awe [of her husband], too.”

The professors have a mutual admiration for their distinct approaches to their disciplines. “I don’t have the patience that he has for the details,” she said. “To teach a class of 280 people for an hour and 15 minutes, you need to be really clear on what it is you want to say. For me, it’s a seminar so it’s more trying to make sure that everyone is with me. For him, oh my god, it’s so difficult.”

On the topic of Valentine’s Day, the pair also said that although they don’t really anticipate the holiday, they do have a tradition of dining at the Statler restaurant Taverna Banfi to “set aside some time to start the day together and treat ourselves to a very nice breakfast,” Alvisi stated.

“Having breakfast together gives us a sense of vacation, even though we come to class afterwards,” EIbenstein-Alvisi added.

Cornell has a long history of hiring married pairs to teaching positions. According to the Working at Cornell website, the Dual Career Program offers support to qualified academic candidates who otherwise may not find employment in the Tompkins County area.

“You are eligible for services through the Dual Career Program if your spouse or partner either holds or is being considered for: a Cornell University tenured or tenure track position, or a Cornell University Band H or higher non-academic position with a term of at least two years and your spouse or partner and you are considering relocating or have relocated to the Ithaca area within the past two years.”

In an article published in 1972, The Sun quoted the former Arts and Sciences college Dean Alfred E. Kahn about the issue of guaranteed employment for spouse pairs. “I am hearing more and more frequent expressions of dissatisfaction and anger by spouses — mainly of course, wives — about the consideration or lack of consideration that they get for teaching opportunities for which they are fully qualified.”

Professor Sahara Byrne, Department of Communication

Professor Christopher Byrne, Department of Communication

Prof. Christopher Byrne met Prof. Sahara Byrne when they were both working in Hollywood. Christopher Byrne said that he first met Sahara when she was dating one of his friends, but as the two saw each other more and grew closer, Prof. Byrne knew that they had “a great connection.”

“My friend was a little mad at me for not telling him at first, but how do you tell your friend you have a massive crush on his girlfriend?” Christopher said. “But I promised him after the awkward talk that this is legit, I really, really liked her a lot.”

After a year of dating, the couple married in 1998. Now both professors in the communication department in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Sahara teaches and researches media persuasion and Christopher lectures on writing, personal brand development and is also an organizer of the annual NYComm trip.

Although their work does not always overlap, Christopher said that he enjoys spending a lot of time together and said that working with his wife helps him feel more connected to his students.

“We go to meetings together, we’re on a couple of committees together,” Byrne said. “Everyone in the [communication] department knows each other pretty well and we all hang out, so there’s a little bit of gossip which is kind of fun to talk about,” he added.

The couple is active in the Cornell community outside the classroom. Sahara Byrne was a faculty in residence for four years in Mews. Christopher said living in the freshman dormitory with her family was nice not only because of the amenities — “Cornell dining is the best food in the world,”— but helped him form better connections with his students.

“It was a great way to really understand the students, especially the freshman,” he said. “When you eat with them and see them around, you have a better understanding for them, and I think it helps in the classroom.”

Byrne also added that having his wife in the department makes him feel more protective of his students

“I really like having Sahara here because I can help students as a teacher, an advisor and almost like a parent.” Byrne said. “I’m as concerned about [my advisees’] health and well-being as their course load.”
For Valentine’s Day, Byrne encouraged students to explore Ithaca. A perfect date at Cornell would consist of “drinks at the Statler, maybe walk from the Statler around Beebe Lake, go to Fuertes Observatory and then The Heights for dinner. That’s it, that’s my date.”