As a Kid in Ithaca, I Gazed Up at the University on the Hill

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By Siera Milton Beal ’07

a photo of Siera Beal

As a freshman, I had the best real estate on North Campus: a massive, fourth-floor single in Balch Hall with a Juliet balcony, overlooking campus and the hills of Ithaca beyond.

I shared a sink with a Singaporean engineer who cooked all her meals in-house. The double next door housed a future attorney from Cupertino, CA, and a coxswain for the rowing team who came from the State of Washington.

On move-in day, Mom and I hauled my suitcase and three large Rubbermaid bins into the room.

She arranged all the dorm goodies she’d splurged on: two cases of Snapple, Easy Mac, Oodles of Noodles, and my favorite fruits.

I plugged in my refurbished ThinkPad. She made the bed. I unspooled my icicle lights.

Then we walked back to the car, and off she went—two miles downtown to our Esty Street apartment, a world away.

Growing up in Ithaca, Cornell was that prestigious, mystical place on the Hill for exceptionally smart (often rich) kids, adjacent to the most affluent neighborhood in town.

As well as I handled my AP and honors course load, part-time job, and sports, Cornell remained nearby, but always in the distance somehow. I was smart, but unconvinced I could be Cornell smart.

I was smart, but unconvinced I could be Cornell smart.

Meanwhile, my Ithaca High classmates applied to Cornell without hesitation, quite certain of their merits and with clear expectations of getting in. A few of them who were waitlisted or rejected even insinuated that affirmative action helped me take their spot.

The fact is, stepping into Balch that fall was indeed an affirming action—a long-anticipated, hard-earned one for myself, my community, my ancestors.

As Ezra Cornell was contemplating the institution he would found, my fourth-great-grandparents—Charles Washington Reed, who had escaped from slavery in Virginia, and Almira Pickett, a Tompkins County native—were on the other side of the lake in the Town of Ulysses, raising children and tending their farmland.

Siera Beal and her mom on a boat in Venice
With her mom in Venice in 2006, during study abroad.

I was a first-grader at Central Elementary when it was renamed for Beverly J. Martin ’57—my mother’s principal when she attended Central.

Martin became one of Ithaca’s foremost educators, advocates, and community leaders.

She, too, was a Black woman born in the city.

I applied to Cornell at the insistence of my after-school program director (another Cornell alumna and Reed family descendant)—and with the kind heroics of our mailman, who placed extra postage on all my unknowingly under-stamped application envelopes.

Like most freshmen, Robert Purcell Community Center was my dinner mainstay—a place I knew well, having spent many of my high school evenings working on the other side of the counter, preparing and serving meals.

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My sophomore year, I transferred from CALS to the Hotel School, where my grandfather spent many years as a chef, back when the Statler was just a jewel-box inn.

Two little girls making gingerbread houses while a college student looks on
Beal (right) samples the frosting as Hotelies help her and her sister decorate their gingerbread creations in 1994.

My home junior year (campus housing win number two!) was Sheldon Court—the Collegetown residence hall where my great-grandfather served as a porter not long after he arrived from Lynchburg, VA, in 1929.

My senior year, I became the director of community service for the Cornell chapter of the National Society of Minorities in Hospitality. That very organization had hosted eight-year-old me (and my four-year-old sister) at a holiday event in Statler Hall, where students helped local kids make gingerbread houses.

As much as connecting these dots galvanizes my spirit—and grounds me further in who and what I am, and where I’m from—it also weighs on me.

I’m not sure how many Ithacans have traveled the path behind me.

As is the case for many low-income communities across the nation, the news emanating from home is mixed at best.

Inequality, affliction, addiction, violence, loss—all of it more intense, acute, and frequent than I ever remembered it.

I’m not sure how many Ithacans have traveled the path behind me.

So I share my story now, because more than ever, I need to believe ...

That my path is still lit for others.

That the brilliant threads of our community fabric remain intact.

That young people caught in Ithaca’s fray may see what is possible.

That kids can trust that no place in their hometown is too hallowed for their presence.

That a poor Black girl at IHS will apply to Cornell as reflexively and confidently as her peers.

That my alma mater reaches deeply, intentionally, and locally for any person to pursue any study.

Siera Milton Beal ’07 is an affordable housing consultant by day and genealogist and family historian by night. She lives in San Diego with her two children, husband, mom, and mini German shepherd.

All images provided.

Published November 18, 2022

Comments

  1. Tray Ballard- Jacobs, Class of 2026

    Cornell and Ithaca have played a major part in my life for over 40 years. Since I visited in high school from Buffalo, frequently visited friends there when I was at Columbia and beyond, moving there when my partner went to grad school there, buying a place in Cayuga Heights and one on University, State St.etc. that we rented to students, attending Calvery Baptist, amazed that Ithaca had a Juneteenth decades ago, keeping a place there as my life moved on, always missing the 24 hour State Street diner, ending up with a farm in Newfield….all while being black.

  2. Laura Branca

    What a fabulous and important testimony, from a hometown She-ro! Inspiring encouragement for our community– Sierra’s belief that “My path is still lit for others..” and “…no place in their hometown is too hallowed for their presence!” May it be so.

  3. Douglas E. Milton, Sr., Class of 2019

    What a beautiful story and a blessing to have witnessed my wonderful Niece grow inspite of the obvious obstacles Siera faced and overcame. I knew she was a special child when she was approximately 2-3 years old. We were sitting around the Family Table, as that was our Family’s central place of conversation (My Mother, and maybe a few other Family members. I asked Siera what was her favorite food, she answered “Chicken.” I then asked those at table “What part of chicken do you like best?” Mom said, “Breasts”, someone said “Thighs”, I think I said “Legs”, etc. Then I asked Siera. You know my Brilliant ‘Child-Niece’ said “The Meat!” Future Cornellian? Hell yes! So proud Siera, love you so much. Uncle Doe [Douglas E. Milton, Sr. – Cornell Retiree (35 years of service – Laboratory of Atomic & Solid State Physics 1988-2019)].

  4. Dennis M.Byron Sr.

    At 73, MS’77, I had the pleasure at the insistence of her mother “Missy” to meet Siera and her sister this summer in Ithaca! That connection was important as you read the Milton family has deep roots into the East Hill / downtown Ithaca community and beyond!
    I had the honor to serve as her mother’s teacher from kindergarten through 6th grade plus knew most of this wonderful Milton family serving as the director of The Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC)!
    Nothing the Milton and related families do surprises me… as they are for sure an impactful/formidable group of human beings!
    However, in conclusion Siera, congratulations on a well-written piece, path and journey to Cornell and successes accrued!
    Sincerely,
    Dennis M. Byron Sr. MS ’77
    Founding Director (GIAC) (1972-80)

  5. Ted Rauch, Class of 1961

    What a fabulous story from a true Cornellian. My father (Alfred Rauch … class of 1924) from Newark, New Jersey lived in Sheldon Court in 1921. I am wondering if he knew your great grandfather.

  6. Andrea Blythe Dickerson, MD, Class of 1987

    Amen!
    As a Jamaican immigrant to New York City at the tender age of 2 years old. I knew no limits. The COSEP summer program opened my eyes to educational excellence and I was all in. I realized that I was worthy of a great education not because I was from a low income family but because I had the intellectual aptitude to do the work. I was not a legacy. I was becoming a legacy. I am a legacy.

    Thank you Cornell.

  7. Thomas M Schickel, BArch '81, MArch '83, Class of 1981

    Thank you Siera for this wonderful heartwarming story of growing up and becoming such a beautiful woman in every way. This is such a fantastic tribute to yourself, the Ithaca/BJM/IHS community, Cornell and your life today! It is as if you can hear the bells ring out from McGraw Tower every day, even in San Diego!

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