There are approximately 15,000 students at Cornell University each academic year. Strolling around campus between class periods, it’s not too difficult to visualize the vastness of Cornell’s student body. As a freshman, the large number of people joining the ranks of Cornell University – 3,325 in the Class of 2022 to be exact – at the same time I felt overwhelming at times. Like many students who now attend Cornell or other prestigious Ivy League colleges, I often felt distinct in high school. I had a specific identity that solidified during high school (for me, I went to the same school for all four years), and a new start at Cornell changed everything. Starting from scratch among about 3,300 other students who felt the same as me was an even bigger adjustment.
The opportunity offered by college to explore one’s boundless passions is incredible and should not be taken for granted. However, this is also not to be taken lightly. At Cornell, there are limitless experiences provided by top-notch research facilities, faculty at the forefront of their academic fields, and even physical education classes that are very unique to our institution. On our campus, however, the breadth of experiences finds its way into the number of incoming students each year, not to mention the older students who are already putting down their roots in Ithaca for now. Some talk about feeling like a small fish in a big pond, but with the formation of social communities, the recruitment of after-school groups, and the blossoming of budding adulthood at the top of academic, research and professional opportunities, one rather has the impression of being lost at sea.
When I was a freshman, I pursued every opportunity I could find. I had yet to find my college identity, and it was certainly evolving from the one I clung to in high school just a summer before. At Cornell I joined the Bhangra team – my first foray into real traditional Indian dance. I enlisted in Cornell Consulting and even joined my residential consulting. I even came aboard the CUSail project team – something way outside my wheelhouse at the time – another example of just how much opportunity there is on this campus.
Now, as I charge toward the end of my seventh semester and roughly four years here, I’m immersed in digital farming at two on-campus labs. I started my own start-up in the field of data management for smallholder farmers. And, although I still dance competitively for Bhangra and attend CC G-body meetings, my student and personal life is very different now than it was when I entered first grade. I have a central interest and focus that I never anticipated when I joined 3,324 other students at Ithaca in the fall of 2018.
I am describing all of this to share my experience of boating our very large pond. I spent my first two years at Cornell exploring endlessly – voraciously pursuing opportunities of interest without caring too much about the implications until I struck gold by finding my true personal passion: where the technology intersects with sustainability, especially in agriculture. However, I certainly wouldn’t have found this niche and this narrative for myself if I hadn’t been willing to feel completely adrift for the first two years of college.
Some use the size of a college as an asset when it is small and a disadvantage when it is large. For Ivy League schools, Cornell falls on the larger side, but I find it to be such an asset to students and faculty alike. Due to the large size — and also partly because of my meandering over the past few years — I’ve been able to encounter the most eclectic of experiences. I have friends who take more traditional routes to pursue law or medicine or get into Big Tech after graduation. But I also have friends who drop out to work in start-ups or leave school without a job at all and take the time to travel a bit. I have friends who study a wide variety of subjects and friends who have the most fascinating hobbies, like collecting old-fashioned keys or running a custom designer clothing store on the side.
But, more than anything, Cornell has been an incredible home for my personal and professional journey over the past four years, not despite its size, but because of this one. Here I was able to learn about self-driving sailboats and traditional Punjabi-style dancing. I was able to learn the fundamental theories of computer science and modern applications in remote sensing and smart vineyards. I was able to get lost in the vastness of college – and then find myself a unique niche at the end of it all.
If I could go back now to advise my freshman, I would tell him that being lost in the crowds on North Campus or being overwhelmed by the size of the student body is perfectly normal – Well in fact — because it is this experience that will help me find my place in our pond.
Somil Aggarwal (he/him) is a senior in College of Engineering studying computer science. He can be reached at [email protected] print(“Sleep”) takes place every other Wednesday this semester.