May 27, 2021

PERATI | My Cornell Experiment

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Coming into college, I had a singular qualm: I was so deeply afraid of being the same person in four years. 

After one of the most important people in my life was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer during my senior year of high school, I experienced a period of early maturity in which I became intimately aware of how important time is. I was no longer able to relate to the friends I  surrounded myself with since childhood and I no longer recognized myself.

Thus began my thought experiment: what would happen if I moved to an entirely new place (albeit across the country and in rural Ithaca)? Who would I become over the course of my Cornell experience?

Once I got to campus, you might say that I gravitated towards The Sun. Entering college, I had a variety of interests but I wasn’t  sure how they all fit together. I was a student who loved science and literature, enjoyed doing biomedical research and writing short stories. I decided that I wanted to double major in Biology and English but was frequently asked, “What do you want to do with that?” I knew my answer to the question but was often afraid to say it out loud. 

During my sophomore spring, while most of my friends were joining Greek Life, I decided to run for science editor of the 137th Editorial Board. I spent late nights at The Sun office, walked from the Vet School to Klarman Hall in the middle of a polar vortex for “edit” meetings and edited for more hours than I had to spare. Yet, in those grueling winter months of “compet”, I managed to find a community of brilliant minds whose interests were as eclectic as my own. 

Like so many other editors on The Sun, I went above and beyond my job description. Inspired by my peers, I made it my passion project to transform the science section. I was determined to expand our reach and coverage so that everyone, not just science professors, would read our content. My co-editor Sophie Reynolds ’20 and I, despite running against each other for the same position, embarked on a joint compet project. Together we pitched, published, edited and wrote more stories than the science section had ever written before. 

We pitched a science co-editor proposal to then Editor-in-Chief Jacob Rubashkin ’20 in an intense and intimidating meeting, but Sophie and I stood our ground and presented the facts: the science section was already making exponential progress because of our collaborative efforts, and we were both undeniably deserving of the position. In being brave enough to ask for structural changes to the editorial board, I unknowingly helped create an infrastructure for the paper to handle breaking science news and, eventually, a pandemic.

Some of my proudest moments as science editor were the unseen ones. I had the honor of welcoming new voices onto the Sun. I still remember the three hour bus ride I spent editing Anil Oza’s ’22 first article that I had assigned to him on the Green New Deal three years ago. The article needed some cuts and polishing before being published, but it was extraordinarily well-researched, and I saw that he had the enthusiasm and tenacity to be a gifted reporter. Anil, of course, went on to become the next science editor and now, assistant managing editor.

In March 2020, when the uncertainty of the pandemic made quality science journalism more important than ever, I knew that I could entrust Anil and Emma Rosenbaum ’20 with taking over the section and continuing its trajectory of exponential growth. It was difficult for me to let my passion project go, but I decided it was time for me to try something new.

During my senior year, I made a switch from objective to subjective by joining the arts section as a columnist. I  always fantasized about writing a column but was never brave enough to try. But with raging environmental disasters, a deadly pandemic, racial injustice and growing hate crimes, there was so much to be angry about in the world, and I decided that it was time to finally start writing about it. 

As an arts columnist, I had the platform to write about art, literature and their intersection with politics, our campus climate and social issues. However, the science reporter in me never really went away. One way or another, my columns connected back to climate change or the pandemic incorporating the reporting skills I had acquired in the science section. 

Later, in response to the English Department’s name change to the Department of Literatures in English, I wrote a column titled, “It’s Not Enough to Change the English Department Name”.I advocated for structural changes to the major beyond a simple name change. It was terrifying for me to put my own opinions and views on public display, but I knew that it was important for me to have the courage to share them. 

My column, however, was not met with the criticism I thought it would be. Instead, many professors in the department reached out to me personally, complimenting the piece, admiring my bravery and thanking me for voicing the need for change. 

As I write this column, the Department of Literatures in English announced that starting next year, they will require students to meet a new set of requirements that represent a more global set of traditions. In voicing the need for important next steps for the department, I was able to make a contribution, even if small, to lasting changes for future students.

Now, as I reflect on my initial fear of stagnation coming into college, I realize that I got it all wrong. At Cornell, everyone is constantly moving, quite literally always going somewhere and working towards something. The idea of stagnation seems impossible. But Cornell wasn’t some kind of magical, mystic place that transformed me into a new ethereal, worldly being. By allowing myself to pursue my interests unconditionally, to be unconventional, to be brave enough to demand change, I became the person who was always there, just waiting for the right time to shine above the horizon.

Thank you to all of my friends, peers, professors and mentors who made Cornell such a colorful and rich thought experiment, and thank you to my family for inspiring me to be brave.

Shriya Perati is graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences. She served as the science editor on the 137th editorial board.  This is the final installment of her arts column Thought Experiments