When I started an editorial position at The Cornell Daily Sun, a friend said, “Paris, you might be the first Iranian associate editor of the newspaper.” Minutes before his congratulations, I opened my third email of the week from a reader addressing me as “Mr. Ghazi.” I wondered if he believed my job in an organization was essentially done by making it to a decision making role, and I laughed. No — I cackled. It was an ugly reaction to a well-meaning observation followed by an equally snarky thought: You know, I might very well be the first left-handed person to sit in this chair in Libe Cafe. I might hold the record for the fastest an Iranian at Cornell has trudged up the Slope to make it to her 10:10 because she spent too long choosing earrings that match her mood. Chances are, at a Cornell that looks and behaves differently from the Cornells that preceded it, you too hold the title for being the first of an identity group to do a whole lot.
To measure institutional influence by drawing on Cornellians who were first to do something doesn’t satiate me anymore. Our repository of successful alumni who invented and defined their fields is cool — a fun fact at best. But in a campus made up of thousands of students who knew long before they had to check boxes on application forms that they would be fulfilling many novelties, being the first wasn’t the goal. It was a coincidence pointed out and applauded by established, white leaders as a new generation of Cornell students reckon with and resolve systems that forced us to be exceptions. In the Cornell of today, students labeled as firsts reshape one fundamental part of our experience on the Hill as we demand to have our collegiate experience count in ways beyond our mere existence: Mentorship.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 recognized her professor Vladimir Nabokov, the famous Russian novelist and poet who taught at Cornell for over 10 years, as pivotal to her education. “Nabokov changed the way I read and influenced the way I write,” she said. I revisited Ginsburg’s reflections as the wounds of her death cut deeper because of the connection to our most adored Cornellian. It’s true, like Ginsburg, I too have found role models here who have changed my skills and hunger for learning forever. But I notice one particular thing about my role models: They’re mostly my age. For the students that make up Cornell’s “firsts,” the support we sought when we arrived on campus wasn’t from people that imbued success alone, but rather, people who were also firsts to do something and reached out a hand.
As a freshman whose camera roll and Instagram feed turned to Cornell propaganda within my first weeks here (both are arguably still that), I believed the four years ahead would hold a wealth of moments akin to Ginsburg’s with an educator who would prove radical to my growth. I believed that one day, I too would draw a link between my time in one classroom and my ability to do something as critical as read and write. But what my freshman self didn’t acknowledge — cute as she was on her third reading of Kurt Vonnegut’s ’44 Slaughterhouse Five while flexing a Nalgene bearing an RBG sticker at the library (I was very much sold on the Internet’s belief that feminism manifests through stickers, forgive me) — is that my learning wouldn’t happen in one classroom. In holding our own hands through spaces that for long have relied on a one-size fits all mentality, our learning had already been underway in every space leading up to and at Cornell.
When we search for examples to guide us in our aspirations and realize that none look like us, we gravitate toward people who invest in students. Relatability among faces we live and learn with may matter more than the accolades of our role models. As Estefania Perez ’21, a first generation college student, made her way through her studies and now prepares for her post-grad life, she found support in the form of a teaching assistant in her international relations class her junior year. “It is daunting to see that there are hardly any folks who look like me,” she said. “My TA was Latina. Not Latin American. Latina, like me! It was so exciting. She also came from a similar background to mine and I just had to get to know her. I wanted to know about her journey to undergrad and what it was like to apply to grad school.”
A recent conversation with staff of the Intergroup Dialogue Project, an academic program that enlists undergraduate facilitators alongside trained educators, added a new word to my vocabulary, “co-learning.” When we co-learn, our movement in our education is complemented by the learning of others in our community — be they roommates, classmates, professors, or in the case of JT Baker ’21, President Martha E. Pollack. A student athlete and a Trustee, mentorship for him took on a meaning at Cornell.
“I’ve had a lot of football coaches, and their existing relationship with me is football. But the best coaches I’ve had in my life are the ones who take the time to help me in a holistic way — how to be a young man, how to be a better student, a better leader, a better communicator,” he told me. Among the many industry leaders he met on the Board of Trustees, President Pollack’s mentorship stood out to him. “Although I’m not a Jewish, white woman, I can relate more to President Pollack because she’s a woman leading one of the most powerful institutions in the world,” he said. “That gives me some hope because I know that as a young, Black man, that maybe one day I can lead an organization in the same way President Pollack does.”
The Cornell that our predecessors claimed is not the Cornell of today. Vonnegut left without graduating in 1943 to enlist in the Army as the U.S. engaged in a world war. Ginsburg’s revolutionary work on campus included chairing the Women’s Vocational Information Committee, an organization that supported women’s career development and served a glaring need in the male dominated University Ginsburg attended. An organization with that string of words would, however, be a table I would pass on without hesitation if I saw it at Club Fest my first year. RBG was absolutely remarkable. But notoriety and dissent are not unique to one Cornellian. As shifts in our frameworks of mentorship change Cornell, I smile knowing that because of students who demand more than just being firsts, we move away from systems that make us reliant on one notorious individual to solve our crises.
Paris Ghazi is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. La Vie en Prose runs alternate Mondays this semester.