Being in prison has been one of Zachary (“Zack”) Strasser’s top experiences while at Cornell.
For most people, the ominous sound of a prison’s heavy metal doors clanging shut would not make them want to hurry back for more. But for the past year Zack has made the trek from Cornell’s open spaces to the locked rooms of the Cayuga Correctional Facility and the Auburn Prison. He believes deeply in education as a way to reduce recidivism and to contribute to the dignity of those incarcerated.
His first semester working in prison, Zack served as a teaching assistant for an introductory biology class. He and another undergraduate braved the prison alone on Friday mornings to host question and answer sessions for the prisoners. His second semester he assisted with a medical anthropology class, which had the added benefit of helping him prepare for his own classes at Cornell.
A Transformative Experience
Zack became interested in anthropology through the Cornell-Nepal Study Program in which he participated in the fall of 2007. He’d been studying the Nepali language for a while (Cornell is one of the few universities in the country which offers it), but he wanted a more intensive opportunity to improve his skills and learn about the Nepali culture.
The study abroad program had a profound impact on Zack, especially the anthropology classes. He got first-hand experience with ethnographic research, conducting a month-long field project that explored biomedicine and more traditional types of medicine. He says he “liked how anthropology articles tend to have direct relevance to our own lives. The variety of fields they cover is really diverse, and as a result never boring.” When he returned to Cornell, he decided to add a major in anthropology to his pre-med status.
A Taste of Intensive Care
Zack didn’t enter college intending to go into medicine. He began considering it halfway through his freshman year, so in order to get a taste of what being a doctor would be like, he volunteered at the Cayuga Medical Center in the Intensive Care Unit. He also participated in FRESH, one of Cornell’s externship programs, where he shadowed a Cornell alumnus who is now a cardiac surgeon. The inside look into medicine whetted his interest, and he switched his status to pre-med. Although he began later than was ideal, he says “the College of Arts and Sciences makes it easy to switch, and I haven’t had any trouble catching up.”
He adds that “I was surprised by how friendly and down to earth my professors were. When I first came here I felt somewhat intimidated.” But he says he soon learned “that they are always willing to reach out and offer some really useful advice.” He lists being invited over to his professors’ houses for dinner as one of his best experiences at Cornell.
From Water Polo to Sand Dunes
Despite the load of classes and hands-on volunteer projects, Zack still manages to find time for intramural inner tube water polo. He says, “It’s a great way to get a group of friends together during the week to have some fun. And surprisingly, even with the inner tubes, it’s still a really good work out.”
But Zack will have to give up water polo and take up camel racing next year, when he heads for Doha to work as a chemistry teaching assistant at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. He’s excited about the destination partly because Qatar has a huge Nepali migrant population. He hopes to have a chance to practice his Nepali as well as to learn more about international migration in the twenty-first century.
And, of course, get more of those transformative first-hand experiences before he applies for a joint graduate degree in medicine and anthropology.