December 10, 2009
Thoughts on "Why Cornell?"

Well, I foolishly posted a comment all-too-quickly on another blogger's site today, and now I'm going to have to babble for a bit to try to clarify what my muddled mind tried to squeeze into a few short sentences.

("Alliteration now is it? Same as my last visit!")

The blogger in question had made a recent post about how his daughter is considering schools in the Northeast, including, among them, my alma mater. Here is the gibberish I posted as a comment:

I’ve been lurking on your site for a bit, but when I saw the picture of my alma mater, I did a double-take. And to hear that your daughter is looking at Cornell… well!

I think I’m going to have to write an entry for my blog about “Why Cornell… (or, any Ivy, for that matter)?” The fact is, wherever your daughter goes, she’s apt to do well because of all that *you* have given her. Even so, by jumping into a school where the student body has a healthy sense of competition and support, she stands to make friends-for-life who will likely encourage her to push beyond her comfort level and better achieve her potential.

It doesn’t hurt that each fresh snowfall on the Cornell campus lends a silent beauty (a blanket of snow is so *quiet* on the gorges and hills) that is unrivaled by any comparable snowfall in Cambridge, New York City, or Philadelphia — Ivy League towns where I’ve also lived. And when the leaves change color? When the summer thunderstorms rage? Awesome.

Now, obviously, weather should not be a primary factor in considering where to attend college -- that was all a reference to the blogger's (and his commenters') remarks about the snow there. That said, all things being equal regarding the colleges that make your short list, it's fair to make it *a* consideration.

Truth be told, yes, the snow and the cold can get a little old by the time you hit February in Ithaca. But the first snowfalls? The fantastic thunder storms? The autumnal foliage? It's every bit as fantastic as one could hope for. The natural beauty of the entire region is wonderful to experience.

And, after graduation, Ithaca is a fantastic town to FLEE! FLEE I SAY!

When I a high school senior, one of my teachers asked where I planned to apply. "Oh, UB," I said (referring to SUNY Buffalo, the local university).

"Where else?"

"Just UB."

"Why just UB?"

"Well..." And here's where I had to admit that, like many at my school, my family just didn't have the cash to pony up for an Ivy League education.

"Allan," she said, in that firm I Know What I'm Talking About voice that all good Social Studies teachers are required to have. "If you're smart enough to get into an Ivy League school, you're smart enough to qualify for scholarships."


She was right, you know. This applies to anyone. The Ivy League schools all enjoy a substantial endowment. The schools themselves will find a way to make absolutely certain that anyone they admit will not be prevented from attending because of financial constraints. Their financial aid offices are expert at extracting every penny the parents can afford... and then STOP. They don't take more than they can afford. If your family can't pay cash for the whole deal, the student can qualify for grants, student loans, and "work study" campus jobs. And Cornell has a program (called the Cornell Tradition) that, for working students, will pay off your loans as you accrue them.

What bothered me about my comment to the blogger's site was that I sent it off hastily, and it reads a bit, er, presumptuous. The line about, " jumping into a school where the student body has a healthy sense of competition and support, she stands to make friends-for-life who will likely encourage her to push beyond her comfort level and better achieve her potential."

That sounds wrong. So, let me explain:

Over the years, I've taken many, many college courses at many different schools. SUNY Buffalo, University of Washington, Cornell, and University of Pennsylvania. Two state schools, and two Ivies. The classes were, on the whole, equally excellent at each school. The faculty? Equally good. Sure, there are a few more "star" academics at the Ivies, but the professors at those state schools are no slouches. And they do have academic stars of their own.

The difference that I noticed was in my classmates. And, again, don't get me wrong: I was surrounded, in each case, by people who were smarter than I. And, who better to learn with and from than people who know more than I do? But, each student body had its own dynamic (for lack of a better word), and the dynamic at Cornell was a little more... more.

They were a little more excited to see how far we could go. The late-night bull sessions were a little more animated; a little more thought provoking. Sure, we talked about sex and drugs and rock and roll, the same as any other college kids. But we also talked about the Bigger Picture more at Cornell than at the state schools. While there wasn't necessarily more intellect, there was more intellectual curiosity. More drive.

I saw what my friends were doing, and being a social creature (as are we all), I tried harder to keep up. And I know that by doing so, my classmates did the same. They worked harder to keep up with me.

Was Cornell a pressure cooker? Only if you made it one. I was a bit of a perfectionist my first year (a hold-over from my high school days), but got over that with time. In the Ferris Bueller's Day Off world, I started off as a Cameron, but ended as a Ferris. Except... the more I relaxed, the better my grades got. Go figure.

And, like most college kids, the good friends I made there did become friends for life. We may only speak to each other a couple times a year, but the bonds are strong. And my friends are successful. They continue to inspire me to better myself and my circumstances.

Of course we all have our problems. Of course my crew and I have had our shares of business failures, career flops, romantic woes and the like. But, by having each other as resources as well as inspiration, it's also been easier to recover from those setbacks. The friends I made during my days at Generation Magazine at UB? A couple went on to become reporters for city newspapers. My friends from the WVBR news department at Cornell? One became a VP at Disney (in charge of, while another is co-hosting Good Morning America on the weekends.

I love them all dearly. But who am I going to go to for career advice if I want to get back into news as a profession? (I'm looking for work, by the way, in case you know of any good job openings in software, project management, or, well, media. I'll post my resume shortly....)

Getting a degree from an Ivy does not guarantee you a job. It does not guarantee you a superior education. It doesn't guarantee you much more than what you bring to the table, yourself. But even after all these years, I still encourage my friends with children to consider that there *is* an advantage to an Ivy League experience. It's subtle, but it's there.

It's slightly better because you make it so. And that makes all the difference in the world.

[Coming up in a future post: Why I hated Cornell, and nobody should ever inflict it upon their kids!]

Posted by on December 10, 2009 05:14 PM in the following Department(s): Adventures in Academia


Allan, one bit of your post jumped out at me in particular:

"I was a bit of a perfectionist my first year (a hold-over from my high school days), but got over that with time. In the Ferris Bueller's Day Off world, I started off as a Cameron, but ended as a Ferris. Except... the more I relaxed, the better my grades got. Go figure."

Oh my. You and I had the exact same college arc. My freshman year at Bucknell, I took literally the maxim that you should study 10 hours for every class, so I literally studied 40 hours per week, keeping track on index cards. I wasn't very social, and swore I'd never have a double room again. (Nothing wrong with my freshman roomie; I was just a loner.)

Senior year spring semester, I shared an apartment with three other women, all of whom remain my friends to this day. I don't think I missed a single Thursday senior-night-at-the-bar all semester. One morning I went to class straight from where I'd been partying the night before.

And my grades never went down. I just learned to freakin' relax.

Posted by: Amy Sisson on December 10, 2009 9:53 PM

The only discussions about sex and drugs I can remember centered around how none of us could obtain either one. ;-)

Posted by: Peter Schoaff on December 17, 2009 5:00 PM

Well... I didn't go to an Ivy League school, but Stanford was probably similar enough. One potential drawback is that they draw top scholars and researchers: "Names". With notable exceptions, I don't recall the names to be terribly good - or terribly interested - at being teachers.
I must confess that I'm inclined to push my kids towards one of those small New-Englandy liberal-arts schools that I scoffed at when applying for my own darn self.
(To be fair, those schools are often just as expensive and less capable of covering the gaps after they've drawn every last drop of blood from the parents' ability to pay.)

Posted by: Jonathan Laden on February 23, 2010 12:38 PM

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On Feb 23, Jonathan Laden said:
"Well... I didn't go to an Ivy League school, ..." on entry: Thoughts on "Why Cornell?".

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