Uni in the USA review
When Ezra Cornell founded his Ivy League school in 1865, he gave it the motto – ‘I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.’ His non-sectarian college was aimed at all people and catered for all interests. Cornell has taken this legacy and made it into one of the most thriving universities on the East Coast. Cornell, aka ‘The Big Red’, is the largest of the Ivy Leagues and allows you to study anything from agriculture to hotel management to the more conventional arts and sciences.
This diverse academic experience takes place in one of the most naturally beautiful campuses in America. Cornell has none of the quaint and well-planned elements that define most New England campuses. Instead its buildings are situated on a huge expanse of rural land, complete with rivers, waterfalls and acres and acres of parkland. For those looking for a fun campus life, great academics and the chance to go swimming in your very own gorge, Cornell is a very appealing option.
If you are a country bumpkin you will feel right at home at Cornell University. The site was literally founded on Ezra Cornell’s farm in 1865 and there is still a highly rated College of Agriculture for those who want to get back to their rural roots. Even if you choose not to study the finer points of turnips, you will be surrounded by a natural beauty that you are simply not going to find at many universities in the US.
The campus is situated on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake and contains three gorges and many hiking paths. The hill means that in the winters (which are invariably long and cold), every student gets to try out their sledding skills on dining hall trays. And in the summers, the gorges (complete with waterfalls) provide an excellent place to cool off.
The whole place was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted – the same man who designed Central Park – and it has the same spacious, yet organized, feel. Despite its somewhat random position in what other schools like to label ‘Middle of Nowhere, NY State’, Cornell has some architectural masterpieces that students are rightly proud of. Most famous of these is the McGraw clock tower which stands at the heart of campus. Three times a day, teams of student chime-masters ascend the stairs and play the alma mater theme tune as well as a variety of other songs, including a selection of Beatles favourites.
Other focal points on campus include Ho Square(!), where students petition, protest and generally hang out; the footbridge on Beebe Lake which is meant to ensure marriage if you and your other half cross it holding hands; and the beautiful Uris Library, which houses one of the world’s largest collections on witchcraft. Cornell also embraced the modern with the I. M. Pei-designed Johnson Museum of Art, one of the most interesting buildings on campus. Not only does it host art shows, concerts and other exhibitions, it also acts as a giant outdoor movie screen in the summer.
The campus for the College of Arts and Sciences, which you are most likely to be a part of, is divided into two parts. The North Campus houses all the freshmen, creating a first-year bonding experience essential in such a large university, and the West Campus houses all the sophomores (except for those who choose to live with their fraternities). There are a total of thirty-three residential halls on campus ranging from traditional Gothic styles to the less attractive modernist concrete.
Juniors and seniors have additional housing options, dorms centred around a particular theme (international house, anyone?), university apartments in Collegetown, or their own choice of off-campus housing. The housing system provides pastoral care but also encourages independence – something that many students say is essential when they finally get into the real world.
As Ezra Cornell so proudly boasted, Cornell is a university where ‘any person’ can do pretty much anything. As a result it attracts a diverse student body. Cornell is the only Ivy League to be both a public and a private institution. While most of you will be heading for the private College of Arts and Science, the university has six other undergraduate schools. These are the College of Agriculture and LIfe Sciences, College of Human Ecology, School of Industrial and Labour Relations, College of Engineering, College of Architecture, Art and Planning and the world famous School of Hotel Administration (which supplies managers for hotels around the globe and oversees Cornell’s own prestigious hotel).
This mix of academic experiences, and the fact that several of the colleges are state-funded with lower tuition fees, ensures that Cornell draws a veritable mish-mash of people from every corner of America. It’s reach goes far beyond as well – almost 20% of undergraduates hail from outside the USA.
If there is one thing linking the Cornell community together, it’s school spirit. Regardless of the season there are always thousands of students thronging the campus, of every conceivable background, ethnicity and religion. And, nearly all of them will stop and extol its virtues. This love for the alma mater may be encouraged by the fact that, if you are stuck in the middle of nowhere for four years, you pretty much have to love your campus.
Cornell undergrads feel passionately about ‘The Big Red’ and fiercely defend any insults levelled against the ‘Bear’ (their mascot) institution. There is a healthy sense of fun on the Cornell campus; something that is testified to by the large number of pranks that take place – most of them involving the hijacking of McGraw tower in some capacity.
When Cornell was initially founded, it was intended to be a university open to people of all religious persuasions. This legacy of tolerance and non-discrimination continues today. Cornell was the first American university to open a black fraternity and it continues to have a strong and well-integrated minority population (estimated at around 45%). It also has a lot of privileged, privately educated white kids, many of whose parents attended Cornell back in their day.
Although, as at all universities, students complain that certain groups like to self-segregate, it is generally agreed that Cornell students are both easy-going and accommodating. This is good news for crazy Brits who will benefit from slotting right into a diverse environment that is rarely found in England.
You will also have to adjust to the American impulse to take part in pretty much everything that is going on, all the time. The extra-curriculars at Cornell are exhaustive and exhausting. A typical day might begin with a volunteer programme in Ithaca, followed by some IM sport, then an article written at the Cornell Daily Sun (a higher-class publication than its name might suggest), followed by an evening tech rehearsal for the annual student production of the Rocky Horror Show.
Somewhere in there you also have to fit three or four hours of class, a little studying, some food, a couple of hours of sleep, a bustling social life and, given that this is Cornell, a jog along the gorge. This may seem exhausting, but soon it becomes second nature and you can’t imagine what you once did with all that free time.
Cornell is not for everyone. It is a huge school and as such it is easy to get lost in the crowd. Cornell students need to have a certain amount of resilience and the courage to promote themselves both academically and socially. It is Ivy League folklore that Cornell has the highest suicide rate of any of the colleges, something which is traditionally blamed on the gorges. This unfortunate hearsay may no longer be true, but Cornell does have a full advising system in place for those who feel lost.
However, for Brits, it may also be the university that feels most like a home from home. The fact that many of the older years live off-campus, coupled with the pub-like mentality of fraternity life, provides those longing for a little bit of British ‘uni’ life with a somewhat similar experience in America. And for those to whom this very mentality is anathema, the school spirit and diversity of Cornell ensures that almost all will find their own niche.