'The pandemic served as a reminder to focus on the present'

Lirong Yao

Computer Science
Qingdao, Shandong, China

What are the most valuable skills you gained from your Arts & Sciences education?

The inclusive environment in A&S empowered me to express myself and share my thoughts without hesitation. Thanks to this, I learned to appreciate the significance of speaking up and making my voice heard. In class, I felt comfortable asking questions and engaging in discussions. In situations where I observed inappropriate behavior, I did not hesitate to report it to the instructor or dean. If I believed I was qualified for an opportunity, I confidently applied for it. I regard this ability to communicate assertively as a crucial skill that played a positive role in my Cornell experience, and I believe it will continue to benefit me for the rest of my life.

What have you accomplished as a Cornell student that you are most proud of, either inside the classroom or otherwise?

During my final year at Cornell, I took a bold step and enrolled in two music classes: Song Writing and Digital Music, where I ended up with three songs and one digital composition.

person at waterfall

Despite having no formal training in music theory or any professional experience playing an instrument, I was determined to push myself out of my comfort zone and try something new. Looking back, I am incredibly proud of myself for taking that leap of faith and following through with the classes.
There were many hard times where I sat inside the studio trying to figure out what melody would sound the best with my limited stores of music knowledge, but I really enjoyed the creative process overall. The song writing class also held a concert at the end of the semester, where I performed my own song in front of a small group of around 40 people. It was nerve-wracking to put myself out there like that, but also incredibly rewarding to see people enjoying my music. These two classes not only taught me the necessary skills to work on music later, but more importantly they gave me the confidence in curating and presenting my work. Overall, I am grateful for the opportunity to explore my passion for music in such a supportive environment and to have accomplished so much by the end of it.

I'm also proud of spending my sophomore year at Tsinghua University in China because of COVID. It became quite an experience for me to come to study at Cornell and then spend one year at the top university in China. It was very valuable for me to learn which aspects of the two university's education, student body and environment are different and which are the same. I was lucky to enroll in one of the most popular computer science classes there and have conversations with Professor Junhui Deng after class about his thoughts on higher education in China.
I also got to meet with many of my high school friends who were studying in China. None of this would be possible without Cornell's connection to Tsinghua University. Cornell alleviated the pandemic's impact and filled my sophomore year full of magic and surprises.

person up in tree

Who or what influenced your Cornell education the most? How or why?

The pandemic has had a significant impact on my life, including my time at Cornell. Prior to COVID-19, my schedule revolved solely around school work, leaving little time for other activities. However, as the pandemic unfolded, I began to recognize the fragility of human life and the importance of savoring each moment. Therefore, I began to prioritize things like enjoying delicious food, spending time with friends and ensuring I received ample sleep. The pandemic served as a reminder to focus on the present, which I now consider to be of utmost importance.

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

1. Don't spend time worrying about your GPA if you are not going to grad school. Even if you do go to grad school, it probably doesn't matter that much.
2. Make sure you take advantage of all the unique opportunities only available at Cornell. Take some fun classes that may not be available elsewhere. Meet caring professors and your talented peers. Don't squander your life on what can be self-taught or done later in your life. Treasure your time here, treasure your role as a Cornell student. 
3. Don't be afraid of anything. Ask your professors questions and point out their mistakes if any. Raise your concerns if you don't like how your group project is going. Take a chance and apply for scholarships, even if the process seems daunting. Don't worry about being rejected or turned down. You are just at the perfect age of making mistakes because nobody blames a freshman.
4. They say sleep, study, social; you only get two. At least get sleep, kid. Your health is paramount. You lose health, you lose everything.

person outside building with suitcase

Where do you dream to be in 10 years?

I dream of working as a research scientist on cutting-edge technology to build real artificial intelligence machines. This has been my long-standing ambition even before I started studying at Cornell. Pursuing a computer science degree here has been a step toward achieving that goal. 


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 2023.

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Lirong Yao