Class of 2020: Learning to let it flow

When 2020 graduates gather online for the Class of 2020 Celebration on Sunday, June 13, they will be Zooming in from locations across the globe—from Brooklyn to Seattle and from Tel Aviv to Tanzania. When these seniors left campus in March 2020, few of them realized they would not be returning to campus for more than a year.

The Class of 2020 embarked on their postbaccalaureate careers in a time of huge uncertainty, in the midst of a global pandemic. Many returned to their childhood homes. Most have started their careers working from remote locations, meeting with colleagues and mentors via Zoom. They have had to let go of where they thought they would be now and learn to embrace a vastly different year, work and social life, and global landscape.

To honor their journeys, we reached out to eight members of the Class of 2020 who agreed to share candid reflections on their lives over this past year. These alumni live in very different locations and circumstances, but they share a common reality. The global pandemic has impacted each of them in profound ways, causing them to put their pre-pandemic plans on pause, to take stock, and—in many cases—to rethink their priorities. They’ve learned to let go of what might have been and, in so doing, they’ve grown stronger and wiser in their ability to shape what might be. We hope you are inspired by their stories of resilience as they learned to do what Jelani Taylor ’20 calls, “play it different.”

Gaining perspective in Tel Aviv: Jillian Shapiro ’20

In her junior year, Jillian Shapiro ’20 served as president of Cornell Hillel. “Judaism is a huge part of my identity,” Jillian says, “and I had always wanted to study or live in Israel.”

Jillian Shapiro
Jillian taking part in a virtual white coat ceremony at the start of her medical school studies.

After completing her undergrad degree in biological sciences in 2020, she found a NYS program that allows medical school students to study in Israel and earn an American degree. In fall 2020, Jillian began her studies at the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University. “I made the decision to move to Israel in the middle of a pandemic, and it has been a wild ride!” she says.

When she first arrived, Jillian recalls feeling like life in Tel Aviv was “almost back to normal” compared to life in the States. “Israel has been a model for how to effectively and safely vaccinate a population,” she says, “to the point where COVID-19 almost started to feel like old news.” Jillian reports that restaurants, bars, and museums were all open. “If I didn’t spend all day studying, I definitely would have been joining in, with my green passport in hand and my mask on,” she says.

Jillian hasn’t been able to see her family back home in Boston since she moved to Israel, but she says she has connected with a distant cousin who lives there. “I never knew her until moving here—now I’m part of the family,” she says.

A few weeks ago, Jillian’s life in Tel Aviv changed dramatically. When fighting broke out in early May, her classes transitioned from in-person to online. “Israel is really resilient in times like this,” she says. “They want to continue classes in person as soon as it’s safe to do so,” she adds.

During the past few weeks, Jillian took refuge in bomb shelters whenever the sirens went off. “I was in and out of them while rockets were fired throughout the country nonstop,” she says. “Before, my biggest problem was making sure to pack a few extra masks in my purse when I went to the grocery store. Now, I take a fully packed bag and make sure to locate my nearest bomb shelter before I go out,” she says.

Jillian says that the apartment buildings in her part of the city are left unlocked and they all contain bomb shelters or fortified stairwells. When the sirens sound, residents head to the nearest shelter. “With a communal shelter, what you see is what you get,” she says. “The one in my building is actually someone’s apartment that doubles as a shelter. It’s not too bad; there’s a bathroom and I leave my blanket there in case it’s chilly,” she adds.

Her experiences living through the recent conflict have given her a new perspective on the pandemic. “Before this, I thought I had very little control over the situation in the world: with the pandemic looming, there was so much uncertainty,” she says.

“It wasn’t until now—being woken up in the middle of the night to go to a bomb shelter—that I’ve realized how it feels to have no power. But we do have the power to protect ourselves and our loved ones during this pandemic,” Jillian says. “We have the ability to vaccinate ourselves and wear masks, to social distance and self-isolate, all of which can help keep your loved ones safe and healthy,” she adds.

Deepening connection: Maya Cutforth ’20

Maya Cutforth ’20 spent the first six months of the pandemic at home with her family in Colorado. “I come from a blended family and was able to bond with my step-siblings in a way that we were not able to while all in college,” she says. “I spent time reflecting on how my family has changed and on how I changed as an undergraduate,” she says.

Maya Cutforth
Jay Bender ’20 Maya and her roommate Claire Noack ’20 on Christmas morning 2020 enjoying a brunch of eggs, sausage, and French toast casserole made by Claire.

“During the pandemic, my friends and I spent time Facetiming (many of us from our childhood bedrooms) and talking about our feelings, our sense of loss from our senior year, and our concern for the future,” Maya says, adding, “I’m thankful that so many friends, professors, and peers from Cornell taught me that being open and honest deepens your relationships, especially when things don’t go the way you expect.”

Since October 2020, Maya has been living in Buffalo, NY with her roommate, Claire Noack ’20. She says that Claire has been an incredible friend. “Whenever I’m having a hard time at work, missing family, or just not feeling happy,” Maya says, “Claire is quick to comfort me. She’s shown me that having one person who is there for you unconditionally can make all of the difference.”

Maya and Claire enjoyed cooking together, and Maya has reconnected to her Filipino heritage by teaching herself to cook a few traditional dishes. “I highly recommend looking up bilo-bilo if you’re interested in trying out a Filipino dessert!” she says.

Maya works remotely as a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and talent acquisition specialist for M&T Bank. She shares that she had no prior corporate experience before starting at the bank, and that she was quite nervous at first. Cornellians at the bank reached out to Maya during her onboarding process. “Within my first week of virtual work, I received multiple emails from Cornell alumni at the bank,” she says. “Their kindness and welcoming attitudes helped me adjust, and I check-in with them regularly still.”

“I wasn’t quite sure what a job in DEI within financial services would be like,” she says, adding “I’ve come to see that there is a large need for this type of work.”

Maya also works as a DEI consultant for an educational tech startup called ParentPowered. “I have learned that curiosity, uncertainty, and courage are all necessary components to growth for any organization,” she says. “Through both of these remote roles, I’ve developed connections with coworkers across the country and gained confidence as a young professional.”

Her willingness to reach out to others for connection and support has helped Maya cope with the challenges of working remotely and remaining socially isolated from friends and family. “I begin my day sipping tea on the couch, and I usually call my sister as she walks to work in Washington, DC,” Maya says. “I’ve been very fortunate to stay in touch with my family and friends virtually during the past year. I’m lucky to have a supportive circle of people who are honest when things are going well and when they aren’t going well, too,” she adds.

Maya also keeps in close contact with her Cornell family. “I’m thankful to have Cornell friends who continue to help me be the best version of myself,” she says.

She treasures her special connection with John Nixon ’53, a generous alumnus who provided scholarship assistance for Maya during her time at Cornell. Maya and John have continued to correspond, and she refers to him as her pen pal. “To be quite frank, I think that we helped each other through our loneliness and ponderings in a time where I was only seeing my family, and he was confined to his apartment in his senior living facility,” Maya shares. “I am very grateful to him for continually taking an interest in my life and sharing with me moments from his,” she says.

Finding the silver linings: Yifan Li ’20

Yifan Li ’20 is looking forward to returning to Ithaca from his home in Beijing, China to retrieve the belongings he left here when campus closed in March 2020.

“I really miss Ithaca, especially in spring,” Yifan says. “I miss lying on the slope on the last day of class and eating rice noodles at Trillium Dining Hall.”

He has reunited with Cornell friends at the Cornell China Center, where they congregate to attend social events, listen to notable alumni, and meet with other Cornellians. “We just had a wine tasting event at the China Center, which was similar to the wine classes I took at the Hotel School in my senior year,” Yifan says. “It’s been very fun to mingle with alumni during their mixers and holiday events,” he adds.

Yifan has been attending online classes at Columbia University, where he is working toward a masters of public policy degree. He admits that the 12-hour time difference has been brutal: “I usually start my online classes at 9:00 p.m. and try to schedule most of my classes before 1:00 a.m.,” he says, so he can get some sleep.

“I don’t have a chance to meet my classmates and utilize the resources the university offers,” Yifan says. “However, I think as long as I lower my expectations, I can actually enjoy my online classes at Columbia,” he adds.

Yifan Li
Yifan at his home in Beijing

He spends his days studying in Beijing coffee shops. Yifan has enjoyed the opportunity to explore his hometown. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to tour Beijing,” he says, “and I’ve found many good places to eat and have fun.”

He’s also taken several online lectures and classes. “I took this opportunity to enrich my knowledge of energy, the environment, international relations, and a lot of subjects that I’m interested in,” he says. Yifan studied government and history at Cornell, and when he completes his master’s degree, he hopes to work in the energy and environmental sectors, bridging the U.S. and China.

Yifan says that life is almost back to normal in Beijing. “Most people are fully vaccinated,” he explains, “but some residents still wear masks both indoors and outdoors, by choice. People are still cautious and prepared for some emergent cases,” he adds.

Yifan has taken advantage of this time to travel with his family, and he recently accompanied his father to visit his father’s hometown in Shanxi. “I finally had the chance to spend time with my family. It has been four years since I celebrated the Chinese New Year with my parents at home,” he explains.

Yifan is very proud of his most recent pandemic accomplishment: he has learned to swim the butterfly stroke!

“I learned there will always be some silver linings,” Yifan says. “This time has taught me to always find some joy, even during bad times.”

Yifan recently obtained a visa to travel from Beijing to NYC, and he is very much looking forward to returning to the U.S. in August 2021 to continue his studies.

Read the full story, including the other five profiles, on the Alumni Affairs and Development website.

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Three people in the mountians
Maya Cutforth ’20, her father Nick, and her sister Asia hiking Colorado’s Mount Flora in July 2020