March 6, 2024

SCHWARZ | Cornell Should Do More to Introduce Students to the Cultural Resources of New York City

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As someone who loves New York City for its cultural resources and whose life is enriched by regular visits to NYC, I think Cornell could and should do more to make NYC accessible to undergraduates.  When I visit NYC, I see huge numbers of secondary school student visitors from across Europe as well as from all over the US, and I wonder why, given our greater proximity to New York, we cannot increase opportunities for our students to learn there. 

We have not even begun to tap the potential of living close to one of the world’s most important and diverse cities.  Our students will be enriched personally and better prepared for their careers if we develop programs in NYC.

In terms of professional development, we could develop lists of those alumni who work in various fields and are willing to help build bridges for students interested in their fields. Our pre-med students could tour hospitals with doctors and aspiring journalists could visit the offices of major publications. At one time the English department had such a NY list for majors interested in journalism, publishing and related fields and we arranged interactive events in NYC.  I often arrange such meetings with current students who are visiting NYC. 

But an equally if not more important resource for students is cultural opportunities which have tangible and intangible benefits in terms of pleasure, knowledge and insight that last a lifetime.  Exposure to theater, dance, opera, art and musical performances — what I call the poetry of life — opens doors and windows to different ways of living and different points of view. 

What would the cultural dimension of a New York program consist of?  I would include the major art museums: The Met, the Museum of Modern Art, the Frick, the Guggenheim and the Whitney. Unless the faculty member leading the student group was conversant with art history and how to look at paintings and sculpture, the program would schedule tours in advance with the museums; the latter would provide knowledgeable staff members or volunteer docents.

I would include visits not only to the Museum of Natural History, The New York Historical Society the main branch of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street and Central Park, but also to some historical sites like the United Nations, Ground Zero and the Tenement Museum. The boat tour to Ellis Island which includes a visit to the Statue of Liberty is essential.  

Several evenings could be dedicated to live performances of opera, jazz, classical music, Broadway theater and dance. One could imagine some choice of options in the evenings, but the focus would be on introducing students to several different cultural resources.

I would also include the wonderful diversity of restaurants that punctuate almost every neighborhood of New York, many of which are inexpensive. 

When and how?

Included among the pre-freshman optional programs—now collectively called Outdoor Odyssey — should be a week in NYC experiencing cultural opportunities that could be called New York City Odyssey. Equally, if not more, important, similar immersive New York Odyssey programs should also be offered during spring break and during the summer and winter breaks.  Perhaps the latter could be offered as a one credit course and last 10 days. During the pre-freshman program which would take place in August, the major ballet and opera companies are not in season. However, there is never a dearth of activities in New York, including Broadway and off-Broadway shows.  Not only are the major museums open throughout the year, but they always have rotating special exhibits.

For the pre-freshman New York Odyssey I suggest a week in NYC supervised by a faculty member in a modestly priced hotel. For a 10-day course, the hotel visit would be extended. But, to save costs and give the students a broader experience of living in New York, hotels could be complemented by Cornell alumni or parents hosting one or more students in the program. Other alumni might invite several students for a meal.

 From conversations I have had, I believe alumni would enjoy hosting students and participating in such a program. Over time, the proposed New York City Odyssey can certainly develop a network of hosts, some of whom might be parents of current students. Moreover, I believe we can find major donors, many of whom live in and love NYC, who would be receptive to funding a New York City immersive experience.

I do not underestimate the logistics, but I know that many large hotels negotiate reduced rates for student groups; if students are two or three to a room, the housing costs could be about $60 per person a day, and some hotels would include breakfast. Some NYC hotels are owned by alumni. With its 350 units, Cornell also has housing options on its Roosevelt Island campus, particularly when students are on break. Theater tickets purchased in block can be less costly especially for plays near their closing dates or not selling out. Various venues open their doors for rehearsals.

NYC Past and Present

Cornell contends that it “has been part of the fabric of New York City for more than 150 years. Across the five boroughs, Cornell students live and learn, faculty conduct research to solve urgent needs, alumni lead in law, finance, healthcare, media, tech and other major industries, and community partners join us to raise the quality of life for thousands of New Yorkers” 

To be sure, Cornell has a much greater presence in New York than when I began teaching here in 1969. Our Weill Cornell medical school on York Avenue dates to 1898. The AAP College’s program at the Gensler Family AAP NYC Center at 26 Broadway 20th floor — an 11,000 square foot studio — offers AAP students an opportunity to live and study in NYC for a semester, but the Gensler site does not have housing facilities. Most students in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity, centered on Roosevelt Island, do spend time in New York, although the NYC summer after the first year is optional. The vast majority of the 25 students admitted each year take the summer option. The ILR school has NYC summer intern programs for a small number of its students.

The Cornell Campus-to-Campus bus, which in most cases is campus to NYC and back, has been a boon to Cornell students and faculty exploring the resources of NYC. When needed these buses can be used for special events such as the programs I am proposing; if necessary other buses can be chartered.


Were this program adopted on a small scale with the help of donors, Cornell could partially fund the program, providing extra support for those on financial aid. Some financial incentives would be necessary to recruit faculty, and the faculty would need to be carefully chosen. 

To an extent, as the NYC Odyssey program and the proposed one-credit course programs take root, we might develop areas of choice within the basic structure.  Thus, students would have a choice of a few evening performances and daytime destinations. Later, we might offer different immersive New York experiences with different foci. It is possible that students might do more than one NYC excursion, one focusing on, say, the NY Film Festival which corresponds with our fall break, another more on art museums or opera or dance.

In addition to the New York Odyssey program, I would suggest one more ambitious initiative: exploring a partnership with NYC universities — Columbia, NYU, CUNY, etc. —where students could take a junior semester or junior year in New York. Ideally, Cornell should develop a junior term in NYC paralleling its junior term in Washington.

The programs I am proposing — the immersive New York Odyssey for pre-freshman, programs for enrolled students during breaks and the junior term or year in New York — would enhance the Cornell experience and perhaps make Cornell more competitive among students who seek some urban experience as part of their education. I realize that some of what I am proposing may seem initially expensive, but enacting my proposals will make Cornell a better university in preparing its students for life ahead.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023-2024 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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