Ajay Kalias '13 burns his Cornell degree in a YouTube video.

Courtesy of YouTube

Ajay Kalias '13 burns his Cornell degree in a YouTube video.

March 24, 2019

Alumnus Burns Cornell Degree to Show Hard Work Matters More Than Prestige

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The real worth of an elite education has always been a mystery. To people like Gordon Caplan ’88, it may be worth a $75,000 bribe. To Ajay Kailas ’13, on the other hand, there is more to life than the name and prestige that comes with a certificate.

To prove his point, Kailas recently uploaded a YouTube video in which he burned his Cornell degree with a flamethrower. In the video, he explained that hard work and enjoying life is much more fulfilling than the prestige of the school you attend. The video quickly gained over 20,000 views and over 500 comments.

Kailas told The Sun that he applied to Cornell because he was impressed by its traditions, research opportunities and down-to-earth environment. He also believed Cornell was the best place for him to pursue both sociology and a pre-med track.

For Kailas, attending Cornell was a privileged experience as it gave him a “self-validation.” During his sophomore year, Kailas earned a 4.11 GPA and was involved in multiple organizations and extracurricular activities.

However, the pressure to keep a high GPA for medical school was tough. During the remainder of his time in Ithaca, Kailas was struggling with what to do at Cornell.

“There was a point I just realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to do it anymore,” Kailas told The Sun.

Tired of maintaining a perfect GPA, Kailas decided from junior year that he would actually enjoy his life and take classes he wanted. He took a lot of interesting classes — like the wine class offered by the School of Hotel Administration — a decision that made his experience “a thousand times better.”

Meanwhile, the prestige associated with Cornell made him gradually feel entitled. Kailas said he would post about Cornell all he time on Facebook and he would wear Cornell shirts everywhere. He said his “self-esteem and mental health” depended on attending an elite school.

Ultimately, all these feelings came to a halt. In his senior year, Kailas was told by his counselor that his best chance of attending school would be to take a gap year. He decided to take a research position in the National Institutes of Health. Although he felt anxious about not being able to fulfill his dream, Kaila said he “used that nervousness to work as hard as I could.”

This research experience earned him the opportunity to go to the medical school at the University of Central Florida. But the experience there was far from what he had at Cornell.

“[The medical school] didn’t have a lot of resources … or research,” Kailas said, “It was tough to adjust to because I always had to tell people what and where [the medical school] was.”

During medical school, Kailas confronted the fact that he went to a lesser known medical school that does not have the same prestige as Ivy League universities.

Kailas had to practice the procedures for countless hours and compete with students from other elite colleges to get into the residency in dermatology — one of the hardest fields to get into, he said. But the experience of saving dying patients in the hospital showed him that “being able to save someone was much more important than a thousand degrees.”

“Yes, it can matter where you go to school. But hard work will always win in the end,” Kailas, now an aspiring dermatologist, said in the video, “That’s why I burned my Cornell degree. It was just a physical manifestation of my prior need to prove my self-worth,”

Kailas said the response to his video has been positive and many students have reached out to him with their personal experiences, including many high school seniors who have applied to Cornell and will receive their admissions decision on Thursday.

“A lot of high schoolers waiting for a decision next week said … it gave them a lot of relief and hope,” Kailas told The Sun.

Looking back, Kailas said that the experience at Cornell taught him how to utilize the resources such as tutoring, counseling and guest speakers — all of which allowed him to maximize his gains even in places with limited resources.

“Utilize all the resources you have. Don’t make the mistake of letting the name or prestige become your identity,” Kailas advised current students. “And be true to yourself.”