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October 16, 2019

From Student to Teacher: Alumni Professors Reflect on Their Time at Cornell

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During their time as Cornell students, many students call Ithaca home for a number of years before leaving. Some, however, find their way back to campus at the front of the lecture halls where they once attended classes — as professors.

Prof. Cliff Kraft ’75, natural resources, reminisced about sleeping overnight in Barton Hall to get hockey season passes, campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, and the good music –– stalwarts Aretha Franklin and Pete Seeger stopped by the campus in the 70s.

“We weren’t racing to get jobs,” Kraft said. “I think when you are 21 or 22, you’re always nervous about what life has to offer but I don’t think we had a lot of expectations. It was kind of like ‘Wow! This is a cool place to be.’”

Kraft could not have predicted that his career would one day lead him back to Cornell. After graduation he worked with the California Coastal Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, before starting work at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. When he returned as faculty in 2001, Kraft described how every building brought back memories from his formative years as an undergraduate, from genetics lab he took in the Plant Sciences Building to the stray dogs roaming through lecture halls.

Perhaps the biggest change since his time as a student is that environmental sustainability was not talked about, much less a field of study, in the 70s. Kraft majored in biology before narrowing down his interests in graduate school.

“In some ways,I’m responsible for creating the kinds of educational opportunities I think I would have liked to have had and I think are important for students,” Kraft said.

Prof. Chris Xu M.Sc. ’93 Ph.D. ’96, applied and engineering physics, met his wife by chance while crossing the Beebe Lake Bridge. They got married at Cornell, and he even stayed on for one year postdoc since she was graduating.

Comparing his former job at Bell Labs and his position as a professor now, Xu found graduate school at Cornell to be the most stress-free period in his life. He enjoyed playing sports and sliding down Libe Slope on a dining tray after finals.

“[Grad school is] really the most fun time of my life in many ways because you do the things you like to do and you have a lot of freedom to explore and not too many things to worry about,” Xu said.

Seeing his students stress and worry over exams and their futures, Xu reassures them to enjoy their time in college, stating that ten years ago he would not have imagined doing the research he has accomplished today.

“Failure is much more valuable than success, there’s no question about it,” Xu said. “Now I have the mentality that if things are not working, now that’s where the fun starts. Otherwise, if it works as you expect, it’s over. It’s boring.”
Xu has since spent 23 years of his life in Ithaca, and confidently calls it his “hometown.” Like Xu, Prof. Beth Frances Milles ’88. performing and media arts, now calls Ithaca home, but came back to her alma mater after living and working in Connecticut, Rhode Island and southern California.

“I think Ithaca is a phenomenal place to raise a family,” Milles said. “My kids are incredible beings because they grew up in Ithaca and it provided wonderful environment to explore who they wanted to be, and working in academia is an opportunity to keep growing and learning, and that was what was attractive to me.”

Milles majored in history, but directed plays and took classes in a variety of topics during her time as an undergraduate, noting that she went through several iterations of who she wanted to be. Now, she often works with students with no background in performing arts and and gives them experience and exposure to her field.

“Especially of late, I’m very impressed with the initiatives at Cornell to strengthen who we are as citizens, individuals and collaborators and how each of us has a potential to make change through doing good work or being aware,” Milles said.

Prof. Denise Green ’07, fiber science and apparel design, found the College of Human Ecology to be accommodating of her niche areas of study which is why coming back was a natural choice.

“I had always hoped that I would come back to Cornell, because I was really passionate about the education I had received at Cornell, particularly in the College of Human Ecology,” Green said.

Outside of classes, Green found herself immersed in extracurriculars and engaging the community through running a 4-H afterschool program and teaching young people how to sew clothing. Green also values her experience living in a co-op during the transition from young adulthood to living on one’s own. Since coming back to Cornell as faculty, Green is excited to reconnect with the community in Ithaca.

“I’ve been [back in Ithaca] here for five years, and it’s been an intense five years on the tenure track,” Green said. “I’d love to return to community service in a way that I really made time for when I was a student.”