Volunteer Erica Healey-Kagan ’05 sat down with Patricia J. Grant ’95. Learn what shaped Patricia’s Cornell experience as a student, what Cornell surprises she’s still finding, and why she continues to stay involved as a volunteer today.
Patricia’s alumni activities and positions:
- CBAA- VP Membership, Life Member
- Cornell University Council Administrative Board
- Class of 1995- Officer
- Cornell University Council- 2nd term
- Class of 1995 Reunion Co-Chair- 2nd term
- CACO Board
Erica Healey-Kagan ’05: Cornell is a big place. What do you consider to be your communities and how did you find your corner of the university?
Patricia Grant ’95: I have an interesting story about how I ended up at Cornell. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and I applied early decision and agreed to go, sight unseen. Two friends who were in my high school went to Cornell two years before and just loved Cornell, and their enthusiasm was enough for me to apply. Thankfully, I went to Cornell for the pre-freshman summer that COSEP was sponsoring and actually kind of blew my way into it, because I was not invited. I said, so can I come? I’d been advised that it’s a good thing to do and so the COSEP summer class of 1991 became my initial Cornell community. I found my roommate for the first three years of Cornell through that and never looked back.
That was the start of getting to know people. Through classes, through living arrangements. My first year I lived in Ujamaa, a great community to start to just understand all the people who are coming from all over the country and world and to understand my cultural heritage, especially, which was something I think I’d taken for granted, up until that point. I want to say, because I went to Bronx High School of Science, there were easily almost 100 people who came with me. I saw them sometimes. But I enjoyed getting to know people through Gannett, which was my first job, so I met another of my really close friends. It’s been a long, long friendship, sort of a winding road of getting to know people and through volunteer leadership, both as a student and now on as an alumna it has just been great to get the Cornell surprises, I like to call it, every time you meet new people and in new groups it’s always great folks and it’s like wow, Cornell is the gift that keeps on giving through its people.
What was it like on campus? Are there any particular stories that you think of as a member of one of those communities on campus at that time that is meaningful to you?
A couple things come to mind. One is living and engaging with Ujamaa —living there, but also post-residential time and having the weekly unity hour. I always looked forward to that. It was a great time of gathering and discussion and debate. That was a time when it was post-apartheid and there was just so many issues that were being tussled around—Rodney King, the King beating happened during the early part of my Cornell years and so that was particularly memorable. Just really getting to know people in a variety of events every Thursday night was a memorable time. That’s when we had a full hour of the Cosby show. It was great to see people who lived there and didn’t live there just converge on the lounge to do that.
Then, of course, my sorority comes to mind. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. came into my life as a sophomore, and it’s still a huge part of my life almost 28 years later. I’m still active and quite involved in the graduate chapter. But while I was on campus, my sorority sisters were very involved in service both on campus and in particular at GIAC (Greater Ithaca Activities Center). Ithaca Activities Center was a core part of my being. A fun fact is that I was drawn to the GIAC service that we did because of the tutoring, because I always thought I’d be a high school math teacher. I did math tutoring every week there, and one of the young girls I tutored, I met again when I was in Philadelphia, fifteen years later! We reconnected, and she remembered me, and I was like, “what, that’s you?!” At the time she was at Temple University completing her bachelor’s degree. I was working there as well and we ran into each other. I was so touched by that, that I had anything to do with her committing to her education and for her to say that to me was just entirely meaningful.
I think of times of fun and mirth and debate as well as opportunities to make a meaningful impact through service through AKA.
Do you have a favorite memory or something you’ve really enjoyed or gotten out of being a class officer?
I’ve loved being a class officer because the interesting thing is that when I joined the Class Council, I only knew one person on the council at that time. I’ve since gained many, many friends because of the class. I love it, the “Cornell Surprise” —because Cornell’s so big, people you didn’t get to know but you have the opportunity to go deep with and engage with now. One such person, we actually ended up working together for a period of time at Georgetown and that’s how we became close. We met through the council and then became close after that.
Sometimes it’s all about convenience, the things you fall into!
Do you feel like you get something different out of the different ways you’re involved?
I feel like everything at Cornell is social. People are so personable and there’s that aspect that you’re just like, it’s Cornell! Anything that has “CU” or “Cornell” on it, I’m there! And regardless of the sort of objectives of the organization or club, it’s going to be fun because Cornellians are involved. One example was the Cornell Club of Philadelphia—when I was with the Cornell Club of Philadelphia, I just joined because I was new to Philadelphia and I met Marsha Epstein at the time through work, and she was like, “You should join our club!” I did it, and I never looked back. And she is like, three decades my senior, but she’s one of us, she’s a Cornellian.
At the end of the day, everything you do is for the benefit of Cornell but it’s also so much of a bonus to you, as a volunteer. I just have not been able to get enough of Cornell. And what it ends up doing for me is always saying, okay this is me catching up for all the time where I didn’t go and spend in JAM or West Campus or Collegetown. You just can’t be everywhere. Cornell is just such a vast ecosystem. And you get to enjoy that as an alum, even if you’re volunteering—it doesn’t matter what club it is, it’s going to be a wonderful time where you’re learning and growing from the relationships you make.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to become more engaged with the university?
Don’t delay, just do it. Just do it. Don’t think about it. Don’t ask. Just do it because there is no chance that you will regret it. You’ll meet some of the kindest people, some of the most brilliant people, and some of the biggest leaders in industry and society. And they’re going to be normal! I ran into Bill Nye on a train to New York. And I will never, ever forget it, and thankfully Instagram has captured it forever, but it was an opportunity to me for me to just be like, wow, he is part of my network. Like, we’re not going to be calling each other, but at the same time, I can just say “Go Big Red!” and he will turn around and say, “Hi, I’m Bill Nye!” I’m like, I know! We just have a fun exchange.
Cornell was not just meant to be four years or however long you were there if you’re a graduate student. It’s meant for a lifetime. Why not have fun, expand your network, and get to know Cornell all over again? Service is work but it’s also a lot of fun. It fits in.
You can be as engaged as you want and as separate as you want; it’s entirely up to you to turn the volume up or turn it down, or keep it right where it is.
What is the tie that binds you to the university?
My class keeps me connected, I’m in touch with lots of members of the class, even outside of my class officer role. I’m also very attached to my sorority sisters, a group of us meet every week and connect on Zoom, and that’s been a lot of fun. I keep up with others, but that’s been a lot of fun.
Cornell is always in the news. Especially in this last year, it’s been a source of great pride to see Cornell open its doors during the pandemic and manage to keep the community safe, and to encourage members of the Cornell community to wear masks and stay six feet apart and to wash your hands. Three basic tenets! And let’s be a model for the world. In meetings and in all sorts of conversations, Cornell comes up because of that and the research and so many amazing things that happen day in and day out.