- Class: Alum
- Major: History
- Gender: M
- High School: Jewish Day School, Rockville, MD
- Transfer Student: N
Cornell is an excellent school with an excellent reputation. When I tell people I went there, the most common reaction is, "ooh -- Cornell." A close second is, "ooh -- look at you!" When I was there, no one gave a damn about any sport other than hockey, and those games are fun. Not that there aren't other sports that are good, it was just that nobody cared. Although we finally made the NCAA basketball tournament, and I went to the game in Anaheim -- go school! We lost that game, really, really badly. It was kind of hard to watch. Still, cool to be there.
I enjoyed my time at Cornell, but it has a well-earned reputation as an academically rigorous school and it works hard to protect that reputation. The school admits hard workers and expects them to work hard. There are slacker majors, mostly in the publicly funded colleges (Industrial and Labor Relations, Human Ecology, Agriculture and Life Sciences, etc.), but even in the largest college, Arts and Sciences, a savvy lay-about can find a way to get by without doing an uncomfortable amount of work. I was a history and government double major, and generally didn't feel too overwrought until about three weeks before finals, when it was time to start digging on the floor for the syllabus. Of course, I had friends who were engineers and architechts, and those kids were always under the gun. Although I always said: engineers bring it on themselves. The most important thing to know about the academics at any college is that you will get out of it what you put into it. At a school like Cornell, there are nerds, stoners, hicks, rich kids, and (oh my god) about 79 a capella choirs. The size of the school dilutes competitveness, so I never felt that to be an issue (other than thinking, "damn -- that kid who always sits up front and never shuts up is gonna get an A"). Professors are like anyone else -- if you want to be friends with them, go to office hours and make friends. Many of them are geniuses and fascinating people and can write you recommendations for things you have never yet contemplated, like externships or, God forbid, law school. I should also mention the Hotel Administration School, which is reputed to be one of the best hospitality schools in the world, but functions in reality as a sort of campus country club. Hotel kids do the least work and get the most benefits. They generally come from wealthy families (if there's a kid in your Hotel class named Marriott, then guess what? It is THAT Marriott) and they arrive on campus as a natural aristocracy. These are the kids who will be the best connected in the frats and know about concerts and events around town. Fancy cars, fancy booze, fancy parties -- call your friend the Hotelie and find out what's up. They also get by far the least amount of homework. There was an urban legend about a couple of engineers who transferred to the Hotel school in their Sophmore year and within one semester had caught up on three semesters of Hotel school requirements. A case in point is "donuts," a freshman requirement for Hotelies that entails wearing a suit to a lecture once a week (albeit Friday morning -- nothing like a hungover teenager trying to tie a necktie while running down the sidewalk), sitting through a lecture, and eating donuts (thus the name). Also, there was a class on handshakes (firm grip, one pump, smile, eye contact, good job!). Ultimately, the Hotel school is more about making connections than anything else, and in that sense, is a sort of undergrad business school. And because the Hotel school is so highly touted, Hotelies visiting restaurants and hotels can usually finagle free stuff from managers who might want to recruit them later -- pretty sweet. So, at the risk of sounding like a brochure, the school's motto is "an instiution where any can receive instruction in any subject" (or something like that) and that's the school's real advantage, because it's true. I switched from a biology major to a double major in history and government and got a great education in all three.
Cornell, because of its size and its partial public funding, attracts a broader swath of people than most other schools, certainly than other Ivy League schools. We had rich kids in the Hotel School. We had country-folk in the Agriculture and Life Sciences school. And we had every geographic and socio-economic level in between. The school worked very hard to build a racially diverse student body, but ended up, like most Ivy League schools, with a disproportionate number of Asians and Jews (and a disproportionate number of the jews were from Long Island, which was very annoying for those of us who were Jewish and didn't like being accused of being from Long Island). Also, the school was only 10% African-American, much to the dismay of the African American students. There were some racial incidents while I was on campus. I think someone burned a cross on the lawn of the Native American themed living center. I vaguely remember a newspaper story about someone shouting racial slurs from their dormatory window. Much like American society at large, we at Cornell didn't know what to do about it, other than to all agree that racism is bad. You'll find racists anywhere, in any population over a given size; it's the law of averages. Cornell is, by and large, a typically pluralistic and open-minded college campus. Politically, there is some activity. I was there when the Iraq war started, and there was a 70 foot long "no blood for oil" banner hung outside one of the larger class buildings. Also, the leftist-activist kids would protest against corporations that were on campus or global warming or (to their credit) living wages for campus workers. That generally involved sitting in front of the administration building, playing guitar and occasionally talking to a local news camera. There was a small but vocal campus conservative contingent. I remember once seeing a pasty blonde kid in a green jacket and an American flag neck tie standing in front of a 20 foot American flag outside the student union, railing about the "silent majority" and extolling the virtues of Ronald Regan and George Bush. The Cornell Sun ran a number of political columns that dealt with campus and real-world political issues; I wrote one of those. In general, it's a left-leaning campus of the yankee-liberal-intellectual genus, the kind of place that would have confirmed all of Nixon's worst fears.
The Best Things
The quality of the education -- it really is a great school
The Worst Things