March 17, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Loneliness, Empathy and Leadership in Times of Distress

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Cornell’s announcement to transition to virtual learning, to suspend classes after Friday and its request that students return home has been harsh for all.

From freshman to alumni like myself, from hourly employees — who will hopefully still get paid — to tenured professors, all will be affected because of this decision.

Having graduated this December, but having attended May 2019’s ceremony, I feel especially touched by the situation of the seniors of the Class of 2020. Not experiencing the final months of undergrad is missing out on a few of the best memories the college experience can offer.

Listening to seniors has been incredibly touching. I have heard sadness from those that might not be able to share commencement with their loved ones. Some of the many stories are of children of alumni that might not share the graduating experience their parents had, international students that might not get their families to attend and first generation students that might be delayed the honor of donning their cap and gown.

Even if Slope Day, Senior Days and Commencement miraculously happen as planned, the everlasting sentiment will be of a bittersweet sample of what this rite of passage could have been.

Having been an international student at Cornell, I want to shed light on some of the things 24 percent of the student population is experiencing right now. Returning home unexpectedly might be financially constraining to many international students. And uncertainty about how to return to the U.S. if you leave is an even more pressing issue, especially with President Trump adding to the travel restrictions during his March 11’s statement.

International seniors, in particular, face deadlines to find a job within the timeframe the OPT program allows for. It does not help either that the recruiting process for many companies has come to a halt and, as of Wednesday, we are on a bear market. 

In a moment like this, it is easy to feel lonesome and belittled by greater things. I want to express my desire and wish for all to embrace this opportunity to have more empathy for the situation of each unique individual. No situation is quite alike, and no two people are experiencing the same thing.

We can use this as an opportunity to develop our sense of community by shifting the focus from the next big thing to the small things in our lives. Check on your family and friends (at a distance), extend your shoulder (without leaning too close) and hug (without touching) those around you. Cherish your friendships, your unique experiences and the impact that others have had on you and you on others in your trajectory. Moments like this highlight the fragility of “life as usual” and teach us a thing or two about living life tenaciously.

I want to extend this sentiment to the administration of our Alma Mater. While a bureaucratic approach to the student body and greater community safety is rational and pragmatic, there should be more than just that. Leaders should have a higher sense of responsibility, especially in a  time like this. They should be able to show a path forward for those under their guidance with the necessary understanding of the emotional and mental state.

In light of the recent announcement, and all others prior, it seems that Cornell has been too pragmatic and not empathetic enough. I urge the administration to reassess how it has handled the situation and put some more “heart” in its communications and decisions.

Morals and values are assessed during storms and times of distress, not during calm waters. Cornell has an obligation to uphold its oath of stewardship to its community, being both rational and compassionate. It should use its actions as a final departing lesson for the Class of 2020 and all Cornellians, past, present and those yet to be.


Ricardo Oliveira Paes is a graduate of the class of 2019. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.