November 13, 2019

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | One Cornell

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I look around Mac’s Cafe in Statler Hall and see a group of highly energetic, white Hotelies gather around a table to discuss their real estate finance project. A table away, three athletes in their team sweatshirts — I can tell from their facial expressions that they have just finished a long, cold practice in the snow — now search for the energy to study together. Another group of Asian students sit together in the left corner of the room talking about their courses. Two black, male students write on a white board in a conference room. Nearby, three engineers sit next to each other, each immersed in their work with their headphones in. Sorority girls with matching logo backpacks are huddled around a table laughing and eating. I pack up my stuff and head to the Statler Library to work on my business law homework with my friend, a black male, when a question that guided my student trustee campaign hits me: How can we be “one” Cornell if our default state is separate?

Every day in these spaces in the Hotel School and throughout Cornell, I observe everyone isolated in their own silos among people they have the most in common with. As students categorized in separate colleges, majors, races, ethnicities and extracurriculars and labeled by our laptop stickers and attire, we are most comfortable fractioned. No one is to blame that we feel most at home around certain faces and spaces, but it is an overarching pattern embedded in the DNA of our society, and more specifically, in our University. Our self-segregation begins in elementary school and carries to middle school and high school. By the time we get to Cornell, we have spent so many years in a pocket of society within our comfort zone so that when we graduate, we carry this behavior into the real world. If we pride ourselves on being one of the best higher education institutions in the world and view our peers as the next world leaders, we must break the cycle of separation now in hopes of creating unity beyond the Hill.

On the first day of school, you pick a seat. Most likely, the seat you pick is where you will sit for the entire semester. What is keeping you from sitting next to someone across the room that you have never spoken to before? This a small action that will shrink the gaps between us and give us the opportunity to prove what we do in fact share. Shake up your routine and be open to the changes that come as a result. Grab lunch with someone and find out what you have in common. What is stopping you from exploring campus and trying a different dining location? Why do we spend most of our academic experience in the geographic sector of our major? It should not be out of the question for the architecture or biology departments to host one or two classes in the Africana Center on North Campus or Gates Hall to expose their students to an entirely different space — both geographically and in academic discipline. Partnerships across colleges would only further intercollege contact. For example, the Business School and College of Engineering could start a formal partnership in which students excelling in industry-leading technological fields can be partnered with entrepreneurs and business majors to receive course credit for taking their new product ideas to the market. We cannot continue to operate as majors and colleges. It is on us now as students, administrators, faculty and alumni to make a change. We must be innovative in order to move forward. We must have tangible plans that connect people and places on our Ithaca campus and beyond to move toward accomplishing the goal of one Cornell.

As a student-elected trustee, I remain committed to pushing administrators to perhaps change the location of certain classes to get students to experience different spaces and perspectives. But my push alone is not sufficient. All students must be intentional and do small things to remind themselves that if this campus ever begins to feel small, they can take action to see just how expansive and welcoming to them all of Cornell can be. Change your seat in class. Speak to someone who would never cross your daily path. Speak to someone that seems like they have little in common with you and learn more about them beyond their name and major. Engage in a club or activity that you have no experience with. Next time you’re making lunch plans, consider going to Franny’s behind Sibley Hall if you’ve exclusively been eating at Terrace. This will create a profound network of relationships and appreciation for this campus. In return, your small actions produce advocates of campus exchange. Advocates are born when someone truly understands the perspective of another and is therefore able to relate to and empathize with their experience. Be an advocate, and soon, we’ll be closer to being one Cornell.

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 opinion@cornellsun.com. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester.