Come summers, it’s the same scene at our home: a quick hug and a bolt out the door by our daughter, Sara, her mind set on everything but hanging out with the “'rents.”
We’re bewildered and place the blame squarely on Cornell. Its rich offerings lend truth to its motto, “any person any study,” and create a surfeit of choices for the impressionable young mind. Today, we see that these choices drive Sara forward, eager to take on a few of the many new opportunities she discovers on campus, and in the process, wave goodbye to her parents.
The effort to test new ground kicks in each Fall starting sophomore year when undergraduates polish a resumé to capture the attention of on-campus recruiters seeking interns. What can a student with two semesters of coursework sell herself on? Plenty, it seems, if you’re a Cornell undergraduate. The university’s reputation for academic rigor is a selling point all on its own.
Today, our senior eyes the future and weighs her options: a job on Wall Street, graduate school, research institutions, or something completely different. It’s an enviable set of choices for a young person in the current economy when plenty others in her age group struggle to gain a toehold on the career ladder.
The path could have been completely different had Sara’s temperament skewed in another direction. It takes a good amount of humility to survive at Cornell. Look around and watch entering freshmen, once stars of their high school graduating class, quickly become taciturn as they discover what their same-age peers already have achieved. For most students, the environment provides valuable instructions: principally, that at this research-driven university, the young person must be confident enough to recognize and cultivate her strengths while remaining humble enough to prove herself over and over again, in advanced classes, to faculty, and especially to recruiters and employers — omnipresent fixtures of campus life.
What has sustained our daughter through these four years? Close friendships with peers in her programs and good relationships with faculty who have mentored her. These kind professors in the statistics department helped Sara think through her academic options, encouraged her to attend local and national conferences to listen to faculty from other universities and pushed her to prepare her resumé for graduate school application.
And, as a teaching assistant since second year, it’s been a kick for Sara to work alongside experts in their fields. She has been able to see a student’s point of view and offer gentle guidance on how best to tackle a statistics or computer science project. Her supervisors noticed, and soon this undergraduate became a resource to her faculty on new ways to present mathematical and computing concepts to fellow undergraduates.
As she nears the end of her four years at Cornell, her father and I clearly see before us a more polished and confident young woman. The teenager who left our roost is today a professional whose intellect has been forged through tough assignments that forced her to think ever more deeply, finessing subtle concepts in engineering, mathematics and the arts. She has withstood the pressure of balancing classes and the unrelenting and intense hunt for internships; gained satisfaction seeing her peers succeed through careful guidance in the student-TA relationship; and developed a beginner’s understanding of the inner workings of large companies due to summer internships at Microsoft and JP Morgan. Today, she has grown more sure that she can tackle real-world problems.
As example, during a stint at JP Morgan this summer, Sara voluntarily took on a coding challenge that the company had tried to solve but put on the back burner due to other commitments. A background in JAVA that started in high school and her advanced CS classes at Cornell were the tools she needed to solve the problem. Her supervisor, impressed with an intern’s interest in the company’s unmet need and the elegant solution she produced, asked Sara to present her findings to the company’s software engineering team and to senior management. And, yes, she received an offer to join the firm following graduation.
I doubt us parents of this crop of students could have done half as much as they have during their four years here. We didn’t have to. Our good fortune was to have experienced a more robust, even gentle and accommodating, market. Times change, and faced with the reality of an economy that cycles rapidly, our Cornellians enter adulthood aware of the need to polish their credentials ever earlier in life.
As a parent, you hope that the college your child chooses will yield the academic and social experiences he or she desires and that the institution will provide the resources it claims in its shiny brochures. In the end, however, it’s up to the young person to cultivate whatever opportunities a University places in front of them.
We’re grateful that the match between student and university turned out as promised. While we still pine for the child we left behind in Ithaca four years ago, we accept that those days will never return. The future beckons her. For us? Maybe we’ll convert her room into a study, a media center, or go on vacation . . . just the two of us.
Usha Viswanathan and Sekhar Venkatraman are the parents of Sara Venkatraman, a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences