August 24, 2020

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | This Semester Calls for Trust and Compassion

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In about a week, Cornell will reopen for in-person classes after a six-month hiatus. It is quite strange to think that a century-old tradition now comes with a sense of caution.

I know that many of us feel nervous – and I empathize with these worries. With a highly contagious and consequential pandemic, it often feels like the margin of error is too small. I also know that some of us have lingering doubts about students’ ability to refrain from partaking in risky behavior.

While some healthy skepticism keeps us from being complacent, there are many reasons to put our trust in Cornell students, who can and will rise to the occasion. Since Cornell’s March closure, we have learned an extraordinary amount of information about how this disease affects us. From living in Collegetown over the summer, I know that the vast majority of us are modifying our behaviors accordingly – practicing social distancing and wearing masks. It gives me a renewed sense of hope to see evidence that months of responsible action is paying off: Our initial test results of 7,000 students indicate that positive cases are in the single digits. But most importantly, as we move forward with the reopening, students are well aware that this semester entirely depends on our community’s ability to control the spread of COVID.

In these challenging times, baseless pessimism weakens our community, and the erosion of trust works against our collective goal of keeping Cornell safe. Having inaccurate expectations in our students, friends and colleagues can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy; low expectations of one another can lead everyone to lower their personal standards. Now is the time to expect more, not less. In the face of crisis, let’s stand unified. Instead of fear, let’s build and lead with mutual trust.

At times of frustration, I find it helpful to remember that this pandemic has put every subset of the community to a truly unfair test. Many Cornellians – including international students who could not return to Ithaca for the fall – are learning to succeed academically without being physically present on campus. First-year students face the additional challenge of learning to thrive in an unfamiliar and socially-distanced environment. Cornell staff, including the campus life team on the front lines of protecting our residential community, bear new responsibilities of keeping the ship steady during everyone’s first once-in-a-lifetime crisis. At every level of Cornell, the pandemic demands that leaders make unprecedented and consequential decisions given limited time and information.

As everyone tries their best to meet our challenges head-on, let’s remember to apply empathy. To the freshman in their first week at Cornell, feeling homesick and lonely because their home and only support network is so far away, let’s be compassionate. To the staff who are overwhelmed with unpredictability as they try to keep their families safe and healthy, let’s be compassionate. To the professors working their best to provide a Cornell-class education for students now dispersed around the globe, let’s be compassionate.

Thanks to these Cornellians’ hard work and resilience, our campus will continue to serve as an equalizer for the most vulnerable, including students who face practical and financial barriers. Cornell will continue to be a sanctuary for students whose homes are not an adequate learning environment and do not have a reliable computer or internet access. For many more, I am hopeful that our return to campus will restore some much-needed normalcy to their lives.

But make no mistake – being compassionate neither means being complacent or silent. Every Cornell student shares a part of our collective responsibility to safeguard the community. It falls on every one of us to intervene when we see unsafe behavior in the community or speak up when we see university policies that can use improvement. We will come out as a stronger community for your feedback and advocacy.

Many structural factors, including Cornell’s physical location and the new Cornell COVID Testing Lab at the veterinary college, put us in a unique position to reopen safely. But even with a state-of-the-art testing facility and the most extensive and carefully thought-out reopening plans, we could not safely resume instruction without a team effort.

We are a resilient people, and together, we will get through this. The pandemic will end, and life will return to the pre-pandemic normal. Meanwhile, in the face of uncertainty, let’s act together, support each other and make the most of what we have. This fall is not a semester we had expected, but I am excited to see everyone take advantage of what the Cornell campus has to offer.

Welcome back to the Hill.


Jaewon Sim is an undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]Trustee Viewpoint runs every other Thursday this semester.