March 17, 2021

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Three Things I Learned From Virtual Cornell

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Last week marked the one-year anniversary of Cornell’s campus closure. Since then, the University community has learned to adapt to the COVID-19 world; Daily Checks and surveillance tests are now  second nature. And with a federal directive to make all adults eligible for vaccines by May, it finally seems that the end of the pandemic is near.

Quarantine, for me, was a time for introspection and growth. Staying at home with family gave me a chance to deepen my relationship with my siblings. But I also learned about the value of authentic relationships that transcend physical distance and gained a renewed sense of appreciation for the lifelong friends I made at Cornell. 

The year 2020 was an opportunity to learn more about Cornell as an institution as well. As we look forward to the post-COVID world, I took a moment to reflect on the lessons from the pandemic.

Cornellians Are Resilient

The word “resilient” is overused, yet, for Cornell, there’s now a story and concrete evidence to put to that word. In a time of fear and misinformation, University leaders acted decisively with trust and science to reactivate the campus at a time when the many other colleges around the world remained shuttered. Despite a bumpy ride, students reciprocated by coming together to follow the Behavioral Compact, act responsibly, and safeguard the community. Whether it’s during prelim season or an unprecedented global health crisis, we know that Cornellians shine under pressure.

Cornell is One of a Kind

Effective delivery accompanied Cornell’s resilience and leadership in responding successfully to the pandemic. The University leveraged its unique structural factors – the world-class veterinary school and its Animal Health Diagnostic Center – to create a new Cornell COVID-19 Testing Laboratory. The lab members’ hard work and talent enabled the University to remain open by testing 7,000 students per day.

However, one particular component of Cornell’s pandemic response strategy has been with us all along, throughout the 155 years since our founder, Ezra Cornell, offered the University his Ithaca farmland. The University’s isolated physical location was critical to reducing the number of new cases introduced into the campus community.

But the benefits of being in Ithaca extend beyond the current pandemic. Being at a highly residential university in a remote location gives us a unique opportunity to grow as people and bond with each other. Our Ithaca presence is inseparably woven into Cornell’s fabric and the identities of every generation of Cornellians who passed through campus. Even as we lament the occasional April snowstorms, let’s take a moment to appreciate all that Ithaca has to offer because they are, indeed, gorges.

Online Education Has Its Place

Despite the Cornell community’s return to Ithaca, most courses took place online due to social distancing restrictions. The past year has been a grand experiment in distance learning. By being forced to move online, both students and faculty learned about what worked or didn’t work on the virtual Hill.

The verdict is clear that students and faculty both want to return to a fully in-person college experience. Yet, it would be a grave mistake to dismiss online education as a stopgap measure of the COVID-era.

A year on Zoom has taught me that online education can complement the traditional college experience when approached thoughtfully and used effectively. The ability to re-watch lecture recordings, for example, has helped students retain knowledge by giving them a chance to review concepts that they did not understand on their first try. Even in the post-pandemic world, let’s remember to use technology as a tool to enhance learning and expand educational access.

As we celebrate Cornell’s COVID response success and anticipate returning to normalcy, now is the prime moment to reflect on our lessons from the pandemic. What did we learn about ourselves as a community, and how will we use it to our competitive advantage? I cautiously, yet optimistically, look forward to our return to a new – and better – normal.

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