On Dec. 19, nearly 1,500 Cornell students celebrated their winter graduation in a virtual recognition ceremony viewed around the world – the first such event at Cornell, and a fitting end to what President Martha E. Pollack called “a semester like no other at Cornell.”
Andrea Lucia Alfonso ’21 was among the graduates who can attest to that. Alfonso was born in Bogota, Colombia, but moved to Parsippany, New Jersey, at a young age. She grew up in a tightknit family and attended the County College of Morris for two years, with the assumption that she’d continue her education close to home in the Garden State. Only at the urging of her engineering professors did she consider transferring to Cornell.
The transition was daunting.
“Since I’m an immigrant and my family is very close, it was definitely a change going from homecooked meals to the dining hall, and living in a residence hall versus sharing a room with my sister,” she said. “I was kind of scared that during my two years, I wouldn’t have enough time to really make memorable experiences.”
On the contrary – the biological engineering major racked up almost too many to list. She found a community of researchers in the Butcher Lab, where she worked on cardiovascular tissue engineering. As a Cornell Tradition fellow, she traveled to Ghana and shadowed doctors in a hospital emergency room.
As co-president of the PorColombia group, she was able to connect with others who cherish Colombian culture and celebrate it with the wider campus. She also became a resident advisor at Sheldon Court, using her experiences as an immigrant and a Latina woman in STEM to help counsel other students with empathy and understanding.
“What really aided in my success at Cornell,” she said, “was my ability to find my niches.”
The December graduation cohort encompassed bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral candidates. Unlike last year’s December graduates, who were recognized in Barton Hall, surrounded by more than 2,000 friends and family members, this year’s graduates were joined by cheering families at home. They watched a video of President Pollack, Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff and Poppy McLeod, professor and chair of communication and university marshal for all Commencement Events, in Bailey Hall.
“A virtual graduation is without question a strange way to end your time as Cornell students, but as we’ve all learned this year, you don’t have to be on the Cornell campus to be a Cornellian,” Pollack said. “And we don’t all have to be physically in the same place to be a community.”
And like every other Cornell class, this one is part of a community with an enduring mission to create and share knowledge with a public purpose, Pollack said. This pandemic, she told graduates, has shone a light on the importance of education, research and engagement with the world – and our responsibility to each other.
“In the end, our success this semester depended not on what we collectively knew, but on what we collectively did with that knowledge: on the decisions that every member of this community made, every single day, to put the health and safety of our community first,” Pollack said.
“Together, you showed the world what can be achieved when we value, not just knowledge, but each other; when we make our decisions with both our minds and our hearts; and when we treat each other with kindness and humanity,” she said.
Those values ring true for Siddharth Venkatesh ’21, who left his hometown in Dallas and came to Cornell as a self-confessed introvert. After four years of rigorous study in neurobiology and behavior, a full plate of volunteer and extracurricular activities, and a pandemic on top of it all, he’s learned how to branch out and become more open-minded and accepting – both of others and himself.
“I came to Cornell as a totally different person. I didn’t really know what I was going to do, and I thought I had to have everything figured out by now,” he said. “It’s taken me a long while to realize that you never really have to have everything figured out, you just have to be striving. Striving means pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, and not being afraid to ask for help, because Cornell is a welcoming community.”
Venkatesh said the generous atmosphere he found at the university enabled him to meet new people and socialize. He took up boxing and tutoring, and served as a College of Arts and Sciences ambassador as well as a COVID-19 peer ambassador, handing out masks and sanitizer on campus. Most meaningfully, he said, he became an advocate for mental health through Cornell’s Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service(EARS) and the Person-Centered Advocacy Team (PCAT).
“Last year was a huge change. One thing I learned is adaptability, and to be forgiving and self-loving. It’s even more important in these times,” said Venkatesh, who, like Alfonso, plans to attend medical school. “Sometimes you want to be very productive, you want things to go a certain way. But things never really work out ideally. But you can use the things that you’ve learned in these different communities in order to do the best you can with what you have.”