When Chidera Joseph applied to transfer to Cornell from Onondaga Community College, she thought it was a reach. When she was accepted, she worried it might be a joke. But two years later, as she walked across the stage at the Recognition Ceremony for 2018 December Graduates Dec. 15 at Barton Hall, she was confident.
“Because of my Cornell experience and the rigor and everything that you go through, when I enter any environment, I just know that I am able to achieve,” said Joseph, who will earn a Bachelor of Science in communication with distinction in research, becoming the first member of her family to graduate from college.
Before coming to Cornell, “I never saw myself in a high-achieving space,” said Joseph, of Syracuse, who was born in Nigeria and will soon begin a management training program at M&T Bank. “So to be able to be in this environment and actually thrive – in two years I was able to complete a senior thesis, and I’m graduating with magna cum laude – I’ve exceeded my expectations. Words can’t describe how I’m feeling.”
Families and friends of around 470 graduating students cheered, applauded, whistled and sometimes blasted air horns as names were read aloud and the graduates strode across the stage. President Martha E. Pollack described the event as special because of its relative intimacy, compared with Commencement in May, and because the honorees followed their own paths to their Cornell degrees.
“Everyone who is graduating today did things a little bit differently,” Pollack said. “You transferred from another college, or within Cornell. You finished early, or you needed a little extra time. You studied abroad or took a semester away, or you faced challenges – and overcame them. But whatever path brought you to today, it was your own path, your own experiences, your own decisions and your own determination.”
Though their journeys might have differed, Pollack said, as Cornellians they all share important traits: the resolve to work hard and persevere, the ability to listen carefully and consider different perspectives, and a propensity to ask questions and seek out answers.
“Cornell and its graduates – now all of you – relish and promote intellectual curiosity. And we relish and promote enthusiasm – not just for knowledge, but for the impact that we can have with that knowledge,” Pollack said. “Because to be a Cornell student is to be the kind of student who, in the middle of a book or at the end of class, thinks to themselves, or maybe even out loud, ‘Wow, that is so cool.’”
For Nicole Martin ’05, M.S. ’10, and now Ph.D. ’19, the path to her doctorate in food science was more winding than she might have expected. As she pursued her studies, she worked a full-time job at Cornell’s New York State Milk Quality Improvement Program laboratory – and had four young children at home, ages 9, 5 and 2-year-old twins.
“There were extraordinarily difficult points, but I never felt it was something that would prevent me from finishing,” said Martin, whose children wore handmade mortarboards decorated with inspiring messages for their mom, including “My mommy carried my twin and me while working on her Ph.D.”
“Cornell is very special to my heart,” Martin said. “I’ve done all my degrees at Cornell, all in food science, so Cornell is really my home. And having the Ph.D. through the Employee Degree Program just allowed me to follow the dreams that I have. It sort of happened very organically, and it was the best way for me.”
Cornellians’ journeys often begin with a search for common ground with classmates, followed by the search for their own goals and ambitions, said Andrew Semmes ’19, senior class president, who addressed nearly 2,500 people at the ceremony.
“Beyond our shared experiences of CTB bagels, late nights at Olin or incredible Slope Days, we all have individual experiences that have shaped our identities, our relationships and have left an impact on us that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives,” Semmes said. “From course to course, semester to semester, my friends, classmates and I began to reflect on a few key questions: What do we value? How should we spend our time here? And how should we decide what comes next after graduation? The amazing part of Cornell is that each one of us had different experiences that helped us answer these questions.”
Whatever their individual experiences, all the graduates are now well-equipped to meet, and maybe even solve, society’s many challenges, Pollack said.
“Your Cornell education has prepared you, perhaps better than you know, to be one of the people who makes our world better,” she said. “So as you set forth on this new path, do it with ambition, do it with confidence and do it with joy.”