I received a phone call from my head football coach and mentor on a day like any other in my junior year at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. He told me that a coach from Cornell University would be coming to meet me that afternoon. All of my hard work academically and athletically was finally paying off.
My dream was always to play Division I football at an Ivy League school, and this day was my very first step to accomplishing that goal. At that time in my high school career, I had my sights set on Harvard, Princeton and Columbia. I didn’t know much about Cornell. However, I was excited to meet the coach that would possibly give me the opportunity of a lifetime.
As I sat patiently in my school’s library, I felt overwhelmed when a man approached me wearing a red polo shirt that read, “Cornell Football.” He introduced himself as Coach Guido Falbo and told me that Cornell would be the perfect fit for me. He handed me a pamphlet that pictured a beautiful scenery of waterfalls, a breathtaking view of the slope and a panoramic shot of the football stadium that read, “America’s Best College Town.”
Little did I know at 16 years old that this conversation alone would change the trajectory of my entire life. As he left, Coach Falbo said “The difference between coming to Cornell and going to any other institution is this — there, you receive a four year scholarship to play football. At Cornell, you receive a scholarship that will benefit you for the rest of your life. You pick: four years or 44.” He later dubbed the chance to attend Cornell the “44-Year Scholarship” — an opportunity that keeps giving. I could not fully understand the magnitude and depth of this concept as a 16-year-old high school student, but knew in my heart it was the right choice to make.
I shared the news with my parents when I returned home. They were beyond proud yet reluctant, considering that we could not afford the cost of tuition at a prestigious institution like Cornell. I did not want to put such a large financial burden on my parents, so I threw the pamphlet away, telling myself that there would be alternative institutions that would give me a full ride scholarship to play football. However, I could not get the wise words that Coach Falbo told me out of my head. I knew that I would be selling myself short if I chose a university solely based on football or its affordability. Passing on the opportunity to attend Cornell was a decision that I would regret for the rest of my life. This was a chance to change my life as a first generation college student and would allow me to create an impact on my family and community that they had never seen. After weeks of reflecting, I sat back down with my parents and told them that no matter the cost or sacrifice, I would be making the long term investment in my future by attending Cornell University.
Now as a junior at Cornell, I can honestly say that I made the best decision of my life. Considering other schools may have seemed more reasonable to most. However, I believe there is no other experience as valuable as the one I’ve had so far here at Cornell. I have also come to better understand and appreciate the wise words Coach Falbo said to me four years ago. The “44-Year Scholarship” has already given me so much more than just the opportunity to play football. Cornell has allowed me to grow as a young man and has challenged me to reach new levels of excellence. I have been exposed to entirely new perspectives and I’ve been constantly forced to expand my way of thinking. Cornell has given me the tools that will allow me to change my family’s life.
The beautiful thing about the “44-year Scholarship” is this: It is not only about the benefits you receive as an individual, but rather the ability it gives you to empower everyone around you. This realization motivated me to find a way to leave a deeper impact on the entire Cornell community. Similarly to the thousands of people who have made the trek to Ithaca before me, I have been lucky enough to understand how special Cornell really is beyond its household name. By becoming the first-elected student-athlete Trustee and one of very few African Americans on the Board, it is my goal to leave a legacy at Cornell University that will inspire current and future students who have been labeled and stereotyped. To be a student at Cornell means more than just being an athlete or under-represented minority struggling to find a place. It means that you can take all of the perceptions that have been forced on to you and use it as fuel to go beyond systematic limitations, creating the changes you wish to see here at Cornell and in the world.
JT Baker is an undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees and a junior in the School of Hotel Administration. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.