When Ashley Poon of California opened her Cornell admissions decision last Thursday, she burst into tears. Her computer screen revealed a letter welcoming her to the Dyson School.
But Poon now must decide where to spend four years and five-figure tuition bills, weighing Cornell and two other schools — without having visited any of them.
“I just didn’t have the time in my schedule, nor did my family really have the extra money to spend to visit these places,” Poon said. “We decided that it would be better to hold off and just visit when visitation days came out.”
Cornell never announced visitation days. The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled accepted student events in Ithaca and across the country, forcing Poon and thousands of other incoming first-years to make college commitments without having visited the universities they might attend. This is also the reality every year for many first generation, low-income students, who often cannot see campus until move-in day.
The University’s annual mid-April Cornell Days and Diversity Hosting have gone virtual, after Cornell canceled all non-essential gatherings in early March. In 2019, Cornell’s preview days drew a combined 2,300 students to the Hill, allowing admits to sit in on lectures, meet their potential classmates and discover campus organizations.
Cornell Days, which was removed from the calendar for the first time in recent history, is meant to create a sense of community among admitted students. But it remains difficult to replicate online.
Ji Min Yoo ’24 said her acceptance doesn’t feel as “official” because she hasn’t been able to interact as easily with other admitted students and tour Cornell again without admissions stress.
As the Class of 2024 remains distanced from campus and from other students, the admissions office has “dramatically expanded” online programming throughout April, said Jonathan Burdick, vice provost for enrollment. Students have until May 1 to respond to admissions offers.
CUontheHill, Cornell’s admitted student network, has become the hub for this new programming, connecting more than 3,000 admits through live chats, alongside blogs and videos that provide a glimpse into student life.
However, Poon said CUontheHill has room for improvement compared to platforms offered by other colleges to which she was admitted.
Poon said that for another school’s admitted students network, she was automatically entered into the platform as soon as she opened her acceptance letter. But CUontheHill required a “pretty long signup process,” she said, which meant manually filling in personal information and waiting for approval to join.
Accepted students have also been meeting their classmates through GroupMe chats, Snapchat groups and the Class of 2024 Facebook group. Cornell’s Visit Alternatives page encourages students to watch a live view of a now-empty Ho Plaza and scroll through the admissions blog.
But for many prospective students torn between colleges, walking around a virtual Arts Quad and messaging other admits cannot replace a real-life experience.
Roma Bedekar of California, who was offered First-Year Spring Admission, said many of her high school friends have decided to stay in-state for college because they weren’t able to visit the ones they planned to tour after gaining admission.
Bedekar said she might have to do the same: She is deciding between two nearby state schools and Cornell — the only college of the three she hasn’t toured. Bedekar planned to visit Ithaca in April, when she thought she would decide if she felt comfortable in a more rural setting, a “huge change” from her hometown.
Now, committing to a college far from home that she hasn’t visited feels “really hard to justify,” Bedekar said.
“Thinking financially, am I willing to make this investment and do all of this for a college I haven’t even experienced before?” Bedekar said. “It feels like you’re putting a lot on the line, and it’s just easier to stick with something you’re safe with.”
Accepted students are also concerned how they will fit into Cornell’s social life, a crucial aspect of college they find difficult to assess online, even as they interact over social media.
Sean Dreifuss of Chicago said he remains unsure about Cornell’s campus culture. The Hotel School admit was holding off on visiting until Cornell Days because there are no direct flights from the Windy City to Ithaca.
“On paper, Cornell was definitely the place for me in an academic sense,” Dreifuss said. “But I wanted to hear more about social life and that was definitely hard to gauge without actually visiting the campus.”
To make up their minds, Bedekar is relying on virtual campus tours and phone calls with college students who attended her high school, while Dreifuss is connecting with other admits over Snapchat and Facebook.
Meanwhile, current Cornell students have stepped up to independently represent campus through a week-long Instagram Live series.
Through April 5, Pranjal Jain ’23, Liam Ordonez ’23 and Sarah Sun ’23 are answering questions that range from “Why Cornell?” to sports teams and campus loneliness, in an effort to make Cornell more accessible for prospective students. Campus leaders are also making guest appearances, including Student Assembly’s Cat Huang ’21 and Joe Anderson ’20.
Ordonez, a La Asociación Latina first-year representative, said many low-income students “never know what Cornell is like” until orientation. Now, the hundreds of people who are viewing their evening live streams can access this information.
“I definitely wish I had something like this,” Jain said. “Being able to put a face to a school makes such a big difference, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re talking about things that when you go to Cornell events, they’re not going to cover.”
Some of the students tuning into their Instagram live streams are early decision applicants eager to preview their four years, while others are oscillating between a handful of schools or are waiting to hear back from financial aid offices.
Jain said her commitment to helping accepted students comes from wanting to guide other first-generation admits through the college process. She said she made her college decision based on cost and curriculum, wishing she knew more about student life.
“The only reason I was able to get through the process was because I had people who believed in me and wanted to see me succeed,” Jain said. “If I could just pay that back, that’s so much of why I’m doing this.”
Even with these online initiatives, Burdick said the admissions office is still grappling with how to reach first-generation, low-income students. The University normally invites this cohort of accepted students to a campus overnight for Diversity Hosting Days — its cancelation one of the most “heartbreaking” losses, Burdick said.
“That’s the population that’s always, by nature, by definition, most vulnerable, most in need of that sense of personal connection, that sense of support and community coming out of the Cornell campus,” Burdick said.
The admissions office has been working to supplement this program, contacting guidance counselors from schools whose students typically attend Diversity Hosting. The staff that plans this event is translating it online through Zoom and virtual chats.
Still, one reality remains clear: As the world moves virtual, many of this year’s accepted students have some tough decisions to make.
“I wanted to experience the campus I would be spending the next four years of my life in,” Bedekar said. “Seeing whether it would be a place where I could fit in and meeting other people face-to-face is something you can’t simulate online.”