'Cornell has given me the tools to make a difference'

Anna Lifsec

College Scholar
New York, N.Y.

Why did you choose Cornell?

When I visited Cornell in May, a friend drove me past gorges and forests to take me to the arboretum. As I sat in the passenger seat of his car, I watched the water rush all around me. It was a bleak spring day, the mud and brown were pervasive, and yet I knew immediately that this was where I wanted to spend the next few years of my life. Growing up in NYC, spending four years in nature has been an incredible privilege. I have led backpacking trips, gotten my wilderness first responder certification and taught numerous rock-climbing classes since. 

What is your main extracurricular activity and why is it important to you?

In my time here at Cornell I started along with formerly incarcerated activist Richard Rivera the Parole Preparation Project at Cornell. We pair Cornell Students with currently incarcerated individuals serving life sentences in New York State prisons. The undergraduates work in teams of three with the incarcerated individual, also known as the “applicant” to help them prepare for a parole hearing in the coming 8-10 months. The project focuses on relationship building first and critical advocacy and support second. The volunteer team ultimately prepares a parole packet that contains an advocacy letter, a personal statement, certificates, letters of support, a release plan, and much more. They also work extensively through visitation and phone communication on interview preparation for the applicant. Our work is guided by the expertise and desires of the incarcerated applicant and their families. I am forever grateful to have started this organization. A few days before Thanksgiving, I sat in my car with my peers as the man we had been working with for nine months walked out of prison into his family’s arms after 28 long years of confinement, due to our advocacy. When we walked to greet him, he wiped his tears and repeated, “You saved my life.” I am forever grateful for the incredible incarcerated men I have worked with. 

What Cornell memory do you treasure the most?

The memories I treasure the most from Cornell are my summers in Ithaca. Those summers were filled with sunrise canoe paddles, long hikes, and late-night swims. It was a summer of freedom and joy in nature, and I will never forget it! 

If you were to offer advice to an incoming first year student, what would you say?

Cornell is teeming with opportunities. Opportunities to do incredible research, to have outstanding fun, to innovate and to embrace the outdoors. Take advantage of these opportunities, but do not lose yourself in the process. Remember always that your mental health is more important. Cherish your happiness and your well-being and always remember when you are struggling, there are others struggling, and you will all get better together. I wish you all the best; these will be the most incredible four years. 

How has your Cornell education and experience prepared you to deal with the challenges and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic?

This pandemic was challenging, but my Cornell education, and the incredible social justice work I have been able to participate in here, allowed me to focus my efforts during the pandemic on improving conditions for those suffering most. During the pandemic I worked to release people from prison, where a humanitarian crisis was unfolding. Cornell has given me the tools to apply my knowledge to real world situations and work to make a difference in times of national crisis. 

Every year, our faculty nominate graduating Arts & Sciences students to be featured as part of our Extraordinary Journeys series. Read more about the Class of 2021.

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Anna Lifsec