Milstein first-years listen closely, shape stories with strangers

Many of the first-year students in the Milstein Program in Technology & Humanity in the College of Arts & Sciences (A&S) are busy preparing to head to New York City for their summer experience at Cornell Tech.

But before they left, they completed a host of first-year projects, engaging with community members, crafting innovative assignments and sharpening their skills with various technologies, as they do every year.

Students in the program have cross-disciplinary interests in technology and other fields. The program selects 25 first-year students each year and offers a supportive community of engaged learners, speaker series along with core courses, unique short courses, mentorship, career development and funded research opportunities, including the eight-week immersive experience at Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island

First-year students worked on various special projects this year, including audio stories about members of the community and spring projects focused on a campus need, niche or interest. Several members of the class shared their work as part of a Spring Writes literary festival session focused on storytelling, a collaboration with local arts organization Story House Ithaca.

“Every student worked with a community member to craft a short personal audio narrative,” said Austin Bunn, associate professor of performing and media arts (A&S) and director of the Milstein Program. “I’d never done anything like this before and could not have done it without the help of Story House co-directors Lesley Greene and Jonathan Miller. But having been a journalist, I wanted students to exercise their curiosity and empathy and then develop the stories sonically in collaboration with the storyteller. It was wonderful to see the students listen so closely and learn about this place, who lives here and the adventures of their lives. They did a fantastic job.”

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Abhay Gupta ’27 met Joanna, the subject of his audio interview, at LifeLong, a community center in Ithaca focused on senior citizen engagement.

“Working with Joanne was a truly enlightening and emotionally moving experience,” Gupta said. “Listening to her commentary about the 1970s showed me how the problems that the U.S. faces right now, such as polarization and misinformation, are not merely a recent phenomenon, but rather issues deeply embedded in our social fabric.”

Along with Lifelong, students also worked with members of Open Doors English (which provides ESL classes to adult learners) and Civic Ensemble’s ReEntry Theatre Program, a group comprised of and led by people who have experienced incarceration or court involvement with the justice system.

Nikil Shyamsunder ’27 worked with Thomas Jones, a member of the theatre group, to talk a bit about how his own story is reflected in the character he portrayed in the theatre group’s musical, “Fallen Branches Plant Roots,” “which runs from May 31-June 9 at the Kitchen Theatre Company.

“Thomas’ story is one of resilience and perseverance that is unbelievably inspiring — from two separate sentences of jail time to a remarkable career shift spurned by a graduate education at the ILR school here at Cornell,” Shyamsunder said. 

 “It is amazing to hear how Civic allowed Thomas not only to connect with other justice-impacted individuals, but also to his own family.”

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Giselle Gutierrez ’27 and her partner met Jose at Open Doors English and “we were both drawn to him as we are also of Latin American ancestry and for me, his story resembled my father’s,” Gutierrez said.

“He spoke about his harsh childhood in Guatemala and the struggles and successes he had coming to the USA,” she said. “It was honestly just beautiful listening to him speak, and it warmed my heart.”

Gutierrez, Jose and other members of the audio project presented information about their work May 18 during Ithaca’s Spring Writes Literary Festival.

“We all made a big effort to answer all the questions the attendees had, many of which were about our collaboration and how we were able to establish trust so that we could listen and create something that showed vulnerability,” Gutierrez said. “Jose spoke about his experience working with us with so much love. It was so heartwarming to hear that the freshman Milsteiners made a positive impact.”

The audio projects helped Milstein students master editing in Adobe Audition and interviewing techniques.

“Because we were completely cutting out the voice of the interviewer in order to sound like the interviewee was just telling a story, we had to constantly ensure our questions were crafted so that the interviewee would give enough context in our response that it would make sense if a listener heard it without the leading question,” Shyamsunder said. “In addition, finding the right music for the tone of the interview, as well as doing justice to these amazing stories in just a few minutes, was quite the task.”

Gupta said an important lesson for him came in understanding a different life experience. 

“My experience with Joanne taught me the importance of intergenerational dialogue; listening to one's lived experiences from a different time truly does broaden awareness and understanding,” he said.

During the year, first-year students also completed group projects. Shyamsunder and four others are working with eCornell on OpenTutor, a tutoring platform that uses course information and large language models to offer additional resources for online learners.

“The AI space is very saturated currently; thus, much of our time was spent figuring out how OpenTutor could differentiate itself from its competition,” he said. “The eCornell partnership is so valuable because we were able to find stakeholders genuinely invested in our success, and we could essentially target a much smaller customer base, and do it much more effectively than anyone else.”

Gupta’s group created Spectral Sounds, which interweaves technology with music to create visualizations of how Cornell musicians across the musical spectrum imagine the music they’re playing or listening to.

“We ended up using programming such as JavaScript and Python, as well as artificial intelligence powered image and video generators,” he said. “This project was primarily an artistic based one.”

Now that summer has begun, Gupta is looking forward to his adventure at Cornell Tech.

“One of the best parts of the Milstein Program is simply the supportive environment that it gives you,” he said. “The program is incredibly supportive of my ideas and is always willing to help me see them to completion.”

Their summer at Cornell Tech will include mentored workshops, guest seminars, group projects, innovation challenges and real-world engagements in New York City. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the first years,” Bunn said. “I’m a little jealous.”

“I’m looking forward to all the courses they are teaching, but mainly creating my own project and knowing I am surrounded by mentors and students who would be happy to help or join me,” Gutierrez said. “I want to gain more exposure in robotics and programming, as one day I hope to study aerospace engineering as well, and this is a great way for me to start gaining hands-on experience. Of course, I also can’t wait for all the planned outings in NYC like going to a ballet or an amusement park.”

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