The COVID-19 pandemic has brought all campus tours to a halt, stripping high school seniors of their chance to visit campus to help decide whether or not to spend four years at Cornell.
Nothing can replace a springtime weekend in Ithaca, but here are answers to questions about life at Cornell from a panel of Cornellians. Have more questions? Email [email protected] and we’ll do our best to help you out.
Our panelists represent a wide range of perspectives from Cornell’s diverse student body. We asked them to submit responses to questions about campus life, Cornell culture and more, picked our favorite responses and edited lightly for length and clarity.
We didn’t focus our questions on things you can easily find online, and instead aimed to give you a glimpse into life at Cornell and the feel of campus that is hard to get from hundreds of miles away.
Here’s the famous list of 161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do. Check it out for a look at some favorite (and not-so-favorite) Cornell pastimes.
Briefly introduce yourself (class year, major, hometown, what you do on campus) and tell us your favorite thing about Cornell
Andrew Aman ’23, a cappella group vice president: My name is Andrew Aman, and I am an Economics (and possibly Performing and Media Arts) major in the Class of 2023. I am from Atlanta, Georgia, and on campus I am very involved in a cappella (vice president of Last Call, an all-male a cappella group), the Melodramatics Theater Company and the PMA department. My favorite thing about Cornell is (though it sounds cheesy) the people. Everyone is so friendly and unique that you are guaranteed to find “your people.”
Terence Burke ’21, president of the Interfraternity Council: Hi! My name is Terence and I am a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. I’m from Connecticut, which is about a four-and-a- half-hour drive from Ithaca. I’m double majoring in Economics and Classics and minoring in Business. On campus, I’m the President of the Interfraternity Council, the Vice Chair of the Peer Review Board, an Orientation Leader and a member of One Love, Phi Chi Theta Business Fraternity, Consent Ed and Lambda Chi Alpha. My favorite thing about Cornell would have to be the entire community of students, faculty and staff! There’s also a great alumni network who are truly invested in the students and actively involved.
Cat Huang ’21, executive vice president of the Student Assembly: I’m a rising senior studying Industrial and Labor Relations from Bel Air, Maryland! I’m a Student Assistant with the West Campus Dorms and currently serve as the Executive Vice President of the Cornell Student Assembly. My favorite thing about Cornell is the incredibly unique and diverse people that I’m so lucky to call my friends.
Annika Hoff ’22, sophomore forward on the women’s basketball team: My name is Annika Hoff and I’m a sophomore Biology and Society major with intended minors in Spanish and Global Health. I’m from Northfield, Minnesota, which is around 1,000 miles away from Ithaca. On campus I am on the varsity women’s basketball team, and I work as the student manager of Friedman Strength and Conditioning and as a hall monitor in Bartels. My favorite part of Cornell is the campus community and interesting classes. My best friends are from all over the country and I have a couple of international student friends as well. I have enjoyed every class I’ve taken besides [calculus], and some of the highlights include a medical Spanish class and introduction to global and public health.
Anu Subramaniam ’20, former editor in chief of The Cornell Daily Sun: Hello! My name is Anu and I am a senior (graduating May 2020) from Michigan (arguably one of the greatest states). Academically, I am a Psychology major with a concentration in biopsychology and have minors in Communication and Biological Sciences. On campus I am completing a thesis in the Ferguson Automaticity Lab which I have been in for three years, am a teaching assistant for the physics department, am a mentor in the South Asian Mentorship Program, a student lead at Mann Library and a former two-time executive board member of my social sorority. Additionally, I have been on The Cornell Daily Sun for four years, starting as a staff writer before becoming a Night Editor, News Editor, and eventually Editor in Chief. My favorite thing about Cornell is that while it is sheltered in the remote beauty that is Ithaca, it is truly an international institution with professors and students from all walks of life, and opportunities across continental borders.
Ivy League schools sometimes get labeled as snooty and elitist. Is this the case at Cornell?
Subramaniam: As a student from the Midwest I was extremely apprehensive about attending a college on the East Coast given this prevailing reputation. However, it is at Cornell that I have found some of the most down-to-earth people in the world. As I said above, there really are students from every walk of life and so many students are driven advocates for social and political change that will benefit many marginalized groups. Cornell is a relatively large and old institution, so there are traditional elements, but the University is one that promotes innovation and the staff and students drive this brand of thought. Surrounded by nature and removed from societal hierarchies that exist in some of America’s cities, Cornell is not about snootiness or elitism, but about who you meet and how you spend your time.
Burke: No. I don’t get that vibe really. There are students and faculty from all over the world and from a variety of other backgrounds. The diversity of the community is definitely noticeable starting on move-in day and positively impacts all aspects of student life.
Huang: Cornell is known as the most “egalitarian Ivy” for a reason; Cornell has a wide range of students in attendance, and while there may be a population that do come from a more “elite”/ very high income population, that would be the case at any Ivy. What makes Cornell so special is that we have so many students for whom Cornell was truly their dream school and don’t take for granted the privilege of being able to study at Cornell, an Ivy League college, or being able to get an education in general. You’ll find people from all walks of life, and you will be able to find your niche.
What are Cornellians like? Do people smile and say hello when they walk past somebody on the arts quad?
Aman: Cornellians are super friendly. People will smile at me and say hello when I’ve only met them once, and sometimes I’m not sure I’ve met them at all and they still do the same.
Subramaniam: I would bet 99 percent of the time if you smile at someone it will get returned (I personally don’t wear my glasses outside of class so I can’t lie and say I haven’t missed a few smiles). However, college students in general can be a little fickle so it sometimes depends on the time of day and the season you catch them in. On a beautiful spring day? Yes. Freshly caffeinated? Yes. In the midst of exam season or after a long day, you might see more people looking at their music more likely or de-stressing with a friend. In general, Cornell is like a community and while you may not be friends with everyone, if you reach out for help or if you are having a rough day, it is very likely you will receive it, even from a complete stranger. I find that older students love to mentor younger ones, and friendships really form over shared interests (academic or extracurricular) and that dorms are a great place to start making friends!
Ithaca is kind of in the middle of nowhere. Is that hard for you if you’ve lived much of your life in or near a major city? What is city life like, and how do Cornell and Ithaca interact?
Hoff: Northfield is a similar size to Ithaca, so for me it’s perfect. Ithaca is a wonderful college town. Right off of campus there is a bunch of student housing in a location we call Collegetown, and I love it because there are lots of restaurants and all my friends are just a walk away. Ithaca is a little further from Collegetown and is known for its festivals. Some of my favorites include Applefest, where you can find all things apple, and Porchfest where people perform live music on the porches of their houses. There are also many wonderful restaurants in Ithaca Commons, and it’s a cute place to walk around with friends and family.
Will my classmates and I work together, or are academics cutthroat and competitive?
Burke: I think there’s a bit of both, which is good in my opinion. There’s a strong emphasis on collaboration at Cornell, which is one of the things I like most. It is a competitive school to get into, so naturally the students are general competitive people, which doesn’t end once they get in. However, no one can do or learn everything without some help, so the professors and administrators do their best to create spaces where students can help one another improve and learn.
Hoff: Most of my classes require some form of collaboration. Most of my classmates enjoy working together and studying in groups. While some classes are graded on a curve, I have still found that most people want to work together. The environment is definitely competitive, but I would say it is competitive in a good way. Being surrounded by peers that work as hard or harder than me inspires me to work as hard as I can.
If you could change something about Cornell, what would it be?
Hoff: If I could change one thing about Cornell, it would be the sizes of introductory level classes. Due to the high demand and prerequisite requirements, many of my intro classes were way above 100 students. This made learning feel less personal, and a bit more challenging to build relationships with professors.
Burke: I think I would require everyone to take a course from each of the seven colleges. I ended up majoring in a subject I didn’t know existed as a major after taking a class that looked interesting my freshman year. Some of the most unique courses and inspiring professors are those I’ve encountered outside of my major and college. Some of the courses I’ve taken or plan to take in the fall include Culinary Science, Wines, Oceanography, History of Comedy, Investment Banking Essentials, and Dendrochronology (a course on tree ring dating).
Subramaniam: This is a difficult question. As with any institution that is governing a group of diverse individuals, Cornell has its problems, but the one I think I would change is the University’s mental health culture. Cornell has done a really intensive job on trying to expand resources for students, but the Counseling and Psychological Services unit still is understaffed and lacks psychologists and psychiatrists of color. Appointments tend to be made during hours that students can have class and while there are great strides being made, there needs to be more to fix Cornell’s overall mental health culture. Professors are many times not accommodating of students who need patience and empathy while they handle their mental health, and academic rigor and prestige sometimes take precedence over student well-being.
Huang: The socioeconomic stratification at Cornell is pretty shameful. There are so many different types of students at Cornell which is great, but a lot of students at Cornell feel the need to flex their wealth for no good reason other than to find the people like them that they deem worthy (wealthy) of associating with. You’ll find your people at Cornell that you resonate with, that you fit in with and feel truly comfortable with no matter what. Don’t let what other students think about money and wealth get to you.
What is the weekend social scene like? Do I have to join a fraternity or sorority if I want to party?
Huang: The weekend social may seem very party and Greek Life-dominated, but there are a ton of activities that Cornell offers, in addition to the plans and adventures that you and your friends can develop on your own. There’s definitely a misconception that you have to join Greek Life to party, which is typically perpetuated by Greek Life in order to entice students to join, but that’s not the case. You will find your place at Cornell. Also, I’ve found through my time at Cornell that a lot of students mature out of the party culture of freshman year, and move more into casual apartment kickbacks and hangouts that are honestly so much more enjoyable than massive parties.
Burke: I’d say there’s no central social scene and it’s a bit different for everyone. Fraternities and sororities probably have the most structured social activities, but every club, organization or team has a social side as well. For me, joining a fraternity has been one of the more rewarding decisions I’ve made at Cornell not because of the weekend social scene, but due to the great friendships I’ve made, leadership opportunities, and overall sense of community it affords at a large school like Cornell.
Aman: Though things have changed a little bit recently with the new regulations, there are definitely plenty of parties to go to, and you don’t have to be in Greek Life to find them. A lot of the athletics houses have parties, and my a cappella group throws its fair share of parties as well.
Subramaniam: There are both alcohol-centered and non-alcohol-centered events almost every weekend at Cornell. Most weekends there are several parties that students can attend at Collegetown residences or fraternity houses (sorority houses are not allowed to throw parties). You do not need to be in a fraternity or sorority if you would like to party on weekends, but there are several more organized events where partying is available through those organizations. … Cornell also has many days that students commemorate with parties like Orientation Week, Homecoming and Slope Day.
I don’t like drinking or going to parties. Can I still have fun at Cornell?
Burke: Yeah! North Campus is a great community for freshmen and with everyone in the same area it’s a great environment to meet people and develop friendships. There are also hundreds of clubs, so there’s plenty of opportunity to both find things you are comfortable with or try out new activities. Personally, I’m a big fan of the intramurals sports at Cornell and have been able to make teams with my friends and also meet new people. Inner-tube water polo is something I look forward to each spring and recommend to everyone!
Huang: I’m actually a student who does not drink at all and does not participate in Cornell’s party life too much and my answer is completely YES you can have so much fun at Cornell without giving in to societal pressures of what it means to have fun in a college environment. Most people assume that I do participate in party/drinking culture at Cornell because I’m relatively social and outgoing and I really love being at Cornell, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In my time at Cornell, I’ve found that there are so many more students who do not drink at all or party excessively than people think, whether it be for religious reasons, personal, athletic team requirements, etc., and yet we still enjoy Cornell just as much, if not more so than the typical college student.
I’m a big sports fan and want to cheer for my college’s teams. Do students get excited about athletic teams at Cornell?
Hoff: As a student athlete, I love when people come to cheer us on. In general, our student body tends to enjoy attending hockey games. They deserve all the hype because they were both ranked No. 1 at the conclusion of this past season. We have 37 varsity sports, so there are always plenty of events to choose from.
Aman: YES, especially the hockey teams (No. 1 in the nation!). Going to hockey games is so much fun, as students, parents and other spectators get so into it! This is part of what separates Cornell from the other Ivies as well and helps give it a more state-school like attitude.
Subramaniam: Hockey is probably the biggest excitement sports-wise at Cornell. … However, I would say attending sports games and tailgating is not much part of the Cornell experience. It’s very common for everyone to get together to watch home-team games or big sporting events like the Superbowl. There are also plenty of sports games available to go to across the dozens of teams Cornell has, but I would not say the excitement of sports is comparable to a Big Ten or SEC school.
What’s something important about Cornell that they don’t tell you on the campus tour?
Subramaniam: College can be hard. Being away from home and the support network you may have built there, adjusting to a new rigor of academics, struggling to find your academic passion or get involved are all challenges students can face throughout their Cornell career (not just the first few years). And it’s completely OK to not be OK. College is an extremely exciting time of your life, but make sure you don’t put pressure on yourself to make every moment perfect. Reach out and ask for help if you need it and do not stress if you are finding yourself challenged.
Burke: It’s not going to feel like home after just one semester. Maybe not even after your first year, either, but there’ll be a moment where it becomes “home,” you will dread leaving at the end of each semester, and realize that you made the best choice by deciding to attend!
Huang: Cornell really may not seem like it’s for everyone. I can’t count the number of students and friends that I’ve had at Cornell who have confided in me that they considered transferring out of Cornell in their first semester or first year here. It can be difficult, it can be hard, it can be lonely at Cornell. But that’s the case at every other school in the country. There is no shame in wondering if coming to Cornell was the right decision, there’s no shame in struggling. However, almost all of those same friends who highly doubted if Cornell was the right place for them and considered leaving, are the same friends that I still have with me years later, recounting how they did genuinely feel this way in their first few months, but eventually accepted their place at Cornell, haven’t looked back since then, and now they love and couldn’t imagine not being at Cornell. Cornell may feel isolating but you’re never truly alone. Be open with your friends and the people around you because more often than not, you’ll find that they share the exact same doubts and worries that you may have.
Anything else to share? Why should I pick Cornell?
Hoff: Coming from a small town and high school I worried that I would never find my way at a school this size. I was completely surprised by how quickly this place became home. My wonderful RA freshman year created a community in my hall, and most of my best friends today are from [Court Hall]. One of the best parts about a school this size is you get to meet and befriend new people each year. There are also so many cool classes to choose from, that each semester I struggle to put together a schedule because I’m interested in many subjects.
Subramaniam: You pick Cornell for the people. If you are deciding between academics, at a certain point towards the top everything is good. Look at your programs and the faculty and opportunities available, but beyond that, academically you won’t go wrong with Cornell. What truly makes a Cornell education is what you learn from your peers and the people around you. Cornell is a place where you may get pushed out of your comfort zone, but it is a place for personal and academic growth and a place to forge life-long friendships with the most surprising of people.