As the new academic year begins, we asked alumni to share what helped make their time on the Hill exceptional, and what they think students should be sure not to miss during their Cornell years. The responses were broad-ranging—from “Get ice cream at the Dairy Bar,” to sharing which winter boots a new student should bring, to advice for prioritizing mental health and discovering new, unexpected passions by taking classes outside major requirements.
Here, alumni share sage advice with incoming students for making the most of their time at Cornell.
Seek out knowledge
It’s no secret that Cornell attracts some of the best faculty in the world, with thought leaders in a wide variety of fields, incredible world-class research opportunities, and visiting scholars. Take advantage of this, alumni say. Learn from faculty members in your own field of study and outside it, and attend as many lectures as you can about topics that interest you.
“Take advantage of every opportunity you are given to learn: lectures, concerts, campus visitors,” says Pamela Duncan ’69.
“Always remember that faculty and staff choose to work in a university setting because they care about you, the students,” says Nathan C. S. Merrill ’95. “Do not ever be afraid to ask for help, regardless of whether your question or need seems trivial or overwhelming. The older adults who are around you every day are there because they want to help you learn, grow, and mature. They enjoy being surrounded by young people with energetic minds and open hearts.”
“The instructors and professors will be there to help you, not only the year that you have them, but afterwards, too,” adds Carole Kenyon ’59. “Don’t forget to ask for help!”
Cornell Library is also an excellent resource that students must become familiar with, according to alumni. As an added bonus, many of the libraries on campus are also beautiful and host incredible study spaces.
“Explore the libraries early on,” says Carolyn Chase ’66, “and not just the main ones, but also the ones in the dorms and college buildings.”
“If you’re looking for a quiet place to study, go to the stacks at Uris Library,” Melissa Yorks ’75 adds, “where you can look out over Libe Slope and take a break with a great book.”
Remember that community is the heart of Cornell
Your Cornell family is with you for life. Finding your place at a university as big as Cornell can feel overwhelming, but there are many ways to make your experience exceptional and find the people you’ll call part of your Cornell family: not just the friends you make, but also the faculty and staff you interact with, and the alumni who’ve come before you.
“There are so many students there, you can feel lost,” Melissa Yorks ’75 says. “Find your group—join a club, if you play an instrument or have a good voice, join the band or the Sage Chapel Choir.”
“Diversity is a form of life at Cornell; in friendships, in course selection, in activities that you experience living in Ithaca,” says Joanne Wietgrefe ’54.
“Cornell is a huge community, and easy to get lost in. How can you find your place? Follow your passions,” adds Wendy Jensen ’83. “Find people who are doing things that you like to do, and you will find your own tribe within the Cornell community. It might be a sport, like Ultimate, it might be crafts like pottery, it might be music, or the community of cooperative living spaces— anything that nourishes your soul. You will meet people who have similar passions and then have a home base from which to explore all that Cornell offers.”
“Be open to meeting and befriending new people with different interests, backgrounds, and ethnicities than those with which you are familiar,” Nathan C. S. Merrill ’95 says. “Cast aside all prejudices, preconceived notions, and stereotypes.”
Take time to explore the Finger Lakes
Ithaca really is gorges. Alumni encourage you to explore the parks surrounding Ithaca, including the four New York state parks in Tompkins County. Cornell’s Ithaca campus is surrounded by waterfalls and scenic spots to go hiking, swim safely, and relax outside. Don’t forget to check out the outdoor equipment rentals through Cornell Outdoor Education, too!
“Cornell is in a beautiful part of the country, so enjoy it!” says Lara C. DeLong ’91.
Alumni also recommend exploring the many eateries both on and off campus as a great way to relax and meet new friends, with favorite locations including Collegetown Bagels and the Cornell Dairy Bar.
“Try at least ONE new thing each week during your first semester at Cornell,” says Dianne Zimet Newman ’65. “There are so many options of things to do, whether on campus, in Collegetown, or even at Ithaca College. The further you venture outside your comfort zone, the more likely you are to discover something new about yourself, and maybe even find a new interest.”
Pack for Ithaca winters!
Ithaca weather can be unpredictable, and winter can feel never-ending. There’s even a special weather term for the blend of precipitation you’ll encounter for what feels like 9 out of 12 months: Ithacating. Trust alumni when they say you do NOT want to underestimate the weather, especially on days you’ll need to hike up the Slope to class (uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow style).
“Make sure you have a good pair of high-top insulated waterproof hiking boots,” says Ellen Rieser ’76. “And a pair of water and windproof snow pants. And a serious long back parka. Winter is serious in Ithaca and is long. I had an 8:00 a.m. final one year and campus was not plowed after a major snow storm. Thanks to good gear, I was still able to get to the exam. But not the professor. She was snowed in! Fortunately, someone else arrived with the exam!”
While the weather can be frightful, alumni also want to remind students that the campus is especially beautiful in the snow and can be very enjoyable with the right clothing and equipment.
Enjoy your time, and ask for help when you need it
Be sure to explore your passions and try out new things. Many alumni recommend joining clubs (there are hundreds!) that fit your interests, checking out Cornell Hockey games and Cornell Football games, visiting the Lab of Ornithology and the Botanic Gardens, and watching movies at the Cornell Cinema.
Some alumni suggest taking a class in a field outside your major to explore new ideas and attending campus events to meet students with different life experiences from your own. The experiences you have as a student, they emphasize, will stay with you.
“You are beginning on a journey that can continue throughout your life,” says Richard Ahlfeld ’68, MBA ’70, life member of the Cornell University Council. “Over 50 years since my graduation and Cornell is still a very present part of my life, in friendships, in engagement with the university, local alumni groups, financial support, and proudly letting people know that I am a Cornell alumnus.”
“Take advantage of EVERYTHING Cornell has to offer, including the extracurricular activities,” says Jill Schwartz ’82. “Don’t graduate with regrets about what you should have done!”
One of the most important pieces of advice, alumni say, is to ask for help when you need it—by asking a professor for some 1:1 time, taking care of your mental health and using available resources through Cornell Health, and having honest conversations with your family, friends, and members of the campus community. Remember that the Cornell family is here to support you, no matter what.
“Do your best, give your all, remember to make friends and have fun,” says Pete Saracino ’74. “And be GENTLE with yourself. Cornell can be overwhelming at times.”
Above all, try to enjoy your time on the Hill.
“Don’t worry about choosing a major; ten years after graduation more than half of people are employed in a different field,” says Joanne Wietgrefe ’54. “Be able to: meet strangers (especially adults) with ease; read a map of the campus; generally live in moderation in work, exercise, and leisure; become aware of all the facilities for students that are helpful in any circumstances. The window of opportunity is wide open for you. Enjoy!”
“Savor every moment, even the unpleasant ones,” says Marlene A. Kwee ’01. “On a bad day, sit under a tree on Libe Slope and watch the sun set. Because one day, your days on the Hill will be over and you will only be able to look back longingly. Four years go by far more quickly than one might expect!”