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Employee Profile: Cooper Sirwatka

Making the miles matter

Cooper Sirwatka began running ultramarathons five or six years ago, building up endurance to go well over the standard 26.2 miles. Long distances, rough terrain and unpredictable environments are elements that Sirwatka thrives in best—whether on race day or in the workplace. 

As the equal opportunity program director in the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX (OIETIX) at Cornell, Sirwatka taps into the tenacity he’s gained on the trails to administer the university’s response to bias, discrimination, retaliation and harassment complaints. However, he’s navigating a career path with few footprints to follow.  

Part of what I struggle with as a trans person is that I don't have anyone who looks like me that exists in certain higher levels of administration,” Sirwatka said. “There are very few folks I can point to who have my experiences and get to be successful. I’m really proud to have gotten to where I am professionally, but I didn’t know any of that was possible.” 

Cooper Sirwatka is the equal opportunity program director in the Office of Institutional Equity and Title IX (OIETIX).

Before arriving at Cornell, Sirwatka received a bachelor’s degree in literature and began a master’s in English before leaving the program to pursue law school on a whim. While at Cardozo School of Law, Sirwatka studied housing discrimination, and upon graduating, he worked for various nonprofits within that field. When his current position in OIETIX at Cornell was created in August 2022, Sirwatka was excited for a change in scenery and the chance to work in institutional equity. 

“[My position] makes it so people don’t have to spend all their energy hiding parts of themselves and navigating through the minefield of biased comments or discriminatory behaviors,” Sirwatka said.“They can show up and do the work they were hired to do. Whether it's students or staff, when everyone can show up as their full selves, and there are no external parameters that prevent them from success, we can learn from each other and build the best version of Cornell.”

After a bias report is submitted, Sirwatka is responsible for investigating the incident and ensuring a proper response. He gathers information, meets with individuals involved and provides resources to find a resolution.

Sirwatka believes one of the characteristics of a truly inclusive environment is having a space for people to show who they are and be celebrated for it. The ultramarathon running community creates that space, and this, along with the challenge of pushing the body to overcome physical extremes, attracted Sirwatka to the sport. He’s completed 50K, 50-mile and 100K races along the East Coast.

“Ultramarathon running is unique because, after a certain mileage, the gender gap breaks down,” Sirwatka said. “So, all the politically charged conversations around trans athletes don’t really apply, and it’s beautiful to be in a space where it simply doesn’t matter. Particularly in athletics, I don’t know of another space in which that is true to the extent it is in ultra running. It doesn’t matter if you’re first or last; people are there applauding. Everyone values the idea that you showed up and attempted something that most folks wouldn’t even consider.”

Sirwatka strives to create this environment at Cornell. As the first person in his role in OIETIX, he’s keeping a focus on human connection and interaction—maintaining the constant reminder that humans exist on the other side of bias reports. Sirwatka recognizes that his work transcends the reports and seriously impacts the lives of Cornell’s community. It is something he doesn’t take lightly.

“This is just my job, but when I’m dealing with students and employees, this is their life,” Sirwatka said.

“When they’re experiencing bias or discrimination, that pain affects every aspect. I am a huge supporter of continuing with the model that we offer to meet with everyone affected by these incidents to help them tell their story and help us respond in the best way possible.”

Whether traversing the trails or helping people navigate bias incidents at the university, Sirwatka is creating a space where others can feel as though they belong, no matter where they are in their journey.

“It doesn’t matter if you walked or ran or anything in between,” Sirwatka said. “Whatever your experiences are, how you live through them is an amazing thing. That is something people should be proud of.”

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