There are about 15,000 students at Cornell University each academic year. Walking on campus in between class periods, it isn’t too hard to visualize the immensity that is the Cornell student body. As a freshman, the sheer number of people joining the ranks at Cornell University — 3,325 in the Class of 2022 to be exact — at the same time as me felt overwhelming at times. Like many students who now attend Cornell or other similarly prestigious Ivy League colleges, I often felt distinct in high school. I had a specific identity that was shored up over the course of high school (for me, I attended the same school all four years), and starting anew at Cornell threw everything into flux. Starting anew amongst about 3,300 other students who felt the same way as I did was an even bigger adjustment.
The opportunity college provides to explore one’s passions without limitation is incredible and not to be taken for granted. However, it is not one to be taken lightly either. At Cornell, there are boundless experiences provided by top notch research facilities, professors at the forefront of their academic fields and even physical education courses that are very unique to our institution. On our campus, though, the breadth of experiences find their match in the number of incoming students each year, not to mention older students already planting their roots in Ithaca for the time being. Some refer to feeling like a small fish in a big pond, but with social communities forming, extracurricular groups recruiting and fledgling adulthood blooming on top of academic, research and professional opportunities, it can feel more like being lost at sea.
When I was a freshman, I pursued every opportunity I could find. I had not yet found my college identity, and it was certainly evolving from the one I clung to in high school just a summer before. At Cornell, I joined the Bhangra team — my first ever foray into true traditional Indian dancing. I enlisted in Cornell Consulting and I even joined my residential hall council. I even came aboard the CUSail project team — something far outside my wheelhouse at that point — another example of how much opportunity there is on this campus.
Now, as I charge toward the end of my seventh semester and more or less four years here, I am deep into digital agriculture at two labs on campus. I have started my own start-up in the data management space for smallholder farmers. And, while I still dance competitively for Bhangra and attend CC G-body meetings, my student and personal life look very different today than they did when I entered freshman year. I have a central interest and focus that I never would have anticipated when I first joined 3,324 other students in Ithaca during the fall of 2018.
I describe all of this to share my experience navigating our very large pond. I spent my first two years at Cornell exploring endlessly — just voraciously pursuing opportunities of interest without too much worry of implications until I struck gold with finding my real, personal passion: where technology intersects sustainability, particularly in agriculture. However, I most certainly would not have found that niche and narrative for myself had I not been willing to feel entirely adrift for the first two years of college.
Some use the size of a college as an asset when it is small and as a detriment when it is large. For Ivy League schools, Cornell does fall on the larger side, yet I find that to be such an asset for students and faculty alike. Because of the large size — and also partially because of my meandering for a few years — I have been able to encounter the most eclectic experiences. I have friends taking more traditional routes of pursuing law school or medical school or going into Big Tech after graduation. But, I also have friends who are dropping out to work on start-ups or leaving school without a job at all and taking time to travel for a bit. I have friends who study a wide variety of topics and friends who have the most fascinating hobbies, like collecting old-fashioned keys or running a customized design clothing shop on the side.
But, more than anything, Cornell has been an amazing home for my personal and professional journey over the past four years not in spite of its size but because of it. Here, I have been able to learn about autonomous sailboats and traditional Punjabi style dance. I have been able to learn the fundamental theories of computer science and the modern applications in remote sensing and smart vineyards. I have been able to get lost in the sheer magnitude of the university — and then find a unique niche for myself at the end of all of it.
If I could go back now to advise my freshman year self, I would tell him that being lost in the crowds on North campus or being overwhelmed by the size of the student body is perfectly normal — good in fact — because it is that experience that will help me find my place in our pond.
Somil Aggarwal (he/him) is a senior in the College of Engineering studying Computer Science. He can be reached at [email protected] print(“Somil”) runs every other Wednesday this semester.