Listen across difference. Ask for help. Prioritize well-being. Talk to the people around you. Appreciate free speech. Take advantage of opportunities. Explore unfamiliar territory.
Hundreds of first-year and transfer students were heaped with advice, encouragement and well-wishes at New Student Convocation, held Aug. 21 at Schoellkopf Field as rain cleared and umbrellas did double duty as sun shades.
“I can imagine you are excited, anxious and maybe a little worried,” said Sofia Prieto ’23, co-chair of the Orientation Steering Committee. “Three years ago I felt the same, and I suspect that all the Nobel prizewinners, inventors, scientists and famous artists who attended Cornell experienced the same emotions at the beginning of their first year here. They found their way to success and so will you.”
The Class of 2026 is “one of the most extraordinary and diverse classes ever to come to Cornell,” said President Martha E. Pollack, who addressed the students via a recorded video as she recovers from knee replacement surgery.
“Our admissions office is the best in the business, and if you’re here, it’s because they saw in you the potential to make a real contribution to our community and the world,” Pollack said. “You’re also here because you are ambitious and inquisitive and able to take advantage of what Cornell has to offer: a world-class education that will enable you to go just about anywhere from here. I can’t say it strongly enough – you are a Cornellian, and you deserve to be one.”
Pollack identified three practices to help students make the most of their time at Cornell: engaging across difference, and listening to people with whom they disagree; appreciating the importance of free speech; and participating responsibly in civil discourse.
“We’re living in very challenging times, and that’s not something we can or should sugarcoat or look away from,” she said. “At Cornell, we do the opposite: We explore those challenges, and engage with them.
“A Cornell education will enable you to be an active player in the world – to have an impact. Instead of relying on others to solve problems, or feeling like there’s nothing you can do about issues like income inequality, or public health, or climate change, or racial injustice – you will gain the agency to work toward solutions in ways you might not even be able to imagine right now.”
The new students also heard from Janna Zilkha ’23, Orientation Steering Committee co-chair, who described how an ice breaker during her first weeks at Cornell helped her embrace sharing her diverse heritage; and Valeria Valencia ’23, undergraduate president of the Student Assembly, who said that when she arrived at Cornell as a first-generation college student she never imagined herself speaking at that podium.
“If you had told first-year me that I was going to make a speech in front of hundreds of people, I would have actually panicked,” she said. “Look to your left and look to your right – you are the Class of 2026. And while you’re surrounded by some of the best and the brightest, you’re also surrounded by people who are just as nervous as you right now, even if they’re trying to hide it.”
Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, exhorted the students to focus on well-being and community – two elements which would help them achieve their goals.
“Before you came to Cornell, you were acutely aware of how you stacked up against your peers,” he said. “While you might be tempted to enter Cornell with that exact same mindset, I am going to encourage you to focus less on the pressure of how you measure up against everyone else, and more about how your interests and your pursuits complement your passions and your own authentic self.”
The Cornell Chorus and Glee Club performed at the event, which was emceed by Marla Love, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students. As the ceremony came to a close, the students in the bleachers rose to sing the Cornell alma mater together as Cornellians for the first time. And then they filed out for a picnic, ready to put advice into practice – including a parting suggestion from Prieto:
“Most importantly,” she said, “don’t forget to set your clocks for tomorrow, so you don’t miss your very first class at Cornell, like I did.”