First class of Milstein students heads toward graduation

Four years after entering Cornell as the first students in the new Milstein Program in Technology & Humanity, 20 seniors will graduate this year with degrees in everything from biology to linguistics to computer science to physics.

Many of them look back on some of the interesting speakers they were able to meet, the camaraderie they formed with each other and the community projects they took part in, as highlights of their time here.

“I’ve grown to appreciate that humanities is more ubiquitous than I ever thought it was,” said Tucker Hwang ’22, a physics major. “My physics experiment (in his Cornell lab) has between 200 and 300 people working on it across the world, and when you have a group of people working together to solve an issue, humanities becomes increasingly important in that space.”

17 students in a group
Simon Wheeler Milstein seniors gathered for a reception and dinner with faculty, staff and other mentors on May 4.

The Milstein Program selects 25 students from each class to create a cross-disciplinary cohort, trained in intersectional thinking and emergent technology. The Program provides a supportive community of engaged learners, along with faculty fellow seminars, a speaker series, short courses, mentorship, career development and funded research opportunities, including an eight-week immersive experience at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island in New York City. The program was created in 2017 thanks to the generosity of Howard Milstein ’73, Abby Milstein and Michael Milstein ’11.

“I thought it would be such a unique opportunity to combine tech with all of my other interests,” said Bliss Zheng ’22, who majored in biology.

Tiffany Zhong ’22 wanted to be part of a small group when entering Cornell, as she contemplated combining her interests in film and computer science, so she was glad to hear of the Milstein program.

“The Milstein program is full of people I might not have reached out to or met through my classes,” Zhong said.

The COVID pandemic wreaked havoc on some in-person events for the Milstein Class of 2022, including their planned summer at Cornell Tech, but they were still able to attend the Cornell Tech workshops virtually and they said that visits from outside speakers, whether in person or virtual, helped them gain new information and ideas.

three students chatting
Simon Wheeler Milstein seniors gathered for a reception and dinner with faculty, staff and other mentors on May 4.

“I painted a lot in high school,” Zheng said, remembering a talk by Rick Johnson, the Geoffrey S. M. Hedrick Senior Professor of Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell, whose research focuses on computational art history. “He talked a lot about how you could use computation and computer science to enrich art history – looking at thread counts of canvases or designing algorithms to date paintings. I never really thought about how computer science could be applied to that.”

“The talks gave us an interesting perspective on technology, even for someone who just consumes it and isn’t going to be a tech entrepreneur,” Hwang said. “If you’re a freshman who’s interested in virtual reality or augmented reality or other technologies, the Milstein program is a great way to help you get your feet wet and to have access to technology, to play around with it.”

"I think of the Milstein Scholars as the ampersand in Arts & Sciences,” said Austin Bunn, associate professor of performing and media arts and director of the Milstein Program. “Through cohort-building, collaboration and the innovative projects they've undertaken, they've learned to thrive at the intersection of disciplines, practices and communities."

Milstein students also took part in community service projects with non-profit partners, developing applications, websites and virtual tours for historical sites.

Andrew Gao ’22 and other students developed an app for an Ithaca non-profit that matches and then delivers donated furniture to people who need it.

“I got to build a web app, and also had to work with all of these students, as well as the community partner,” said Gao, a computer science major. “Having that project and going on those furniture runs, we helped someone move in and that was cool just to see.”

Milstein students also had access to a host of equipment and training in skills they said will benefit them in the future – from website and app development to video and audio editing

“These skills were really important for me in finding jobs,” Gao said.

Students say that all of these experiences at the intersection of humanities and technology have impacted the way they’ll approach problems in the future.

“Without the program, I probably would have just focused on computer science and maybe not thought about the social impacts and other things we talked about,” Gao said. “It broadened my perspective.”

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students chatting
Simon Wheeler Milstein seniors gathered for a reception and dinner with faculty, staff and other mentors on May 4.