Fare Thee Well, Cornell

This will probably be my last blog post here.

Words cannot express the immense amount of gratitude I have for Cornell. Three years ago TO THE DAY, I arrived in Ithaca for the first time, having only before caught glimpses of the campus on glossy brochures, Google Maps, and friends’ Facebook albums. I brought with me two suitcases that contained my entire life, and left behind in Vancouver everyone I knew. As the Prepare volunteer’s car sped toward West Campus and the scenic beauty of my alma mater came into view, I distinctly remember feeling a combination of excitement, awe, and trepidation. I wondered (didn’t we all?) if I was the right fit for Cornell and vice versa. I wondered if I would do well here. I wondered what it would be like to look back on my college experience and how I would’ve given anything, in that moment when I first saw the clock tower on Ho Plaza, to know what the future had in store for me.

When I first walked into that second-floor suite in Flora Rose, I would have never guessed that the girls in my suite would become my best friends at Cornell. I would’ve never guessed that we would take weekend trips out of the country together, meet each others’ families, and celebrate every success and drink to get over every setback together.

Three years ago, if you told me that I would meet the love of my life on a Shortline Bus from New York to Ithaca, I would have laughed, checked your sanity, and laughed some more. Yet here we are.

I took a gamble by switching from two very sensible and practical majors – finance and computer science – to something I have to explain every time I introduce myself – industrial and labor relations. Boy, was I lucky I did. It’s true, ILR has the most amazing and caring professors at Cornell. Under the guidance of Professors Friedman and Compa, I managed to cobble together a thesis on labor relations and multinational-companies in China. Professor Gold let me TA for his labor law class, even though I spent an entire semester being terrified of getting called on, socratic style. Professor Jackson taught the first economics class I’ve ever understood. My advisor, Professor Lieberwitz, is a role model, though I will never forget the time I lost my voice and she made fun of me in class and threatened to dock participation points. Christina Homrighouse asked me to co-teach a seminar with her in the Johnson School, which pretty much makes her the coolest faculty member ever. Professor Nelson taught me the value of rhetorics and introduced me to a wonderful debate partner who’s off to do great things. The list goes on and on. The point is, my education at Cornell was not a process in which authority figures passed on knowledge to students. Instead, it was a collaborative learning effort where professors respected, valued, and even learned from what each of us contributed. More than anything, Cornell as an institution recognizes the dynamic, ever-changing world we live in and seek to provide education in a way as to be relevant, engaging, and globally-minded.

Without Cornell, I would have never had the opportunity to study abroad at Oxford. I’m sure you guys all know how much I enjoyed my time at St. Catherine’s College given all that gushing that permeated this blog.

The Cornell in Washington program afforded me the opportunity to work for what I think is the greatest institution in this country.

My experiences with my business fraternity, Phi Gamma Nu, was also one of the important highlights. This network of brothers is so supportive and talented. Also, shout-outs to Mock Trial, Forensics, KAPi, CCG, Hilltop, Entrepreneurship@Cornell, etc.

I started writing this entry with the aim of covering the major components of my Cornell experience. Now I’ve realized that it’s simply impossible to do these three years justice. I came to university with very little and it was thanks to Cornell’s generosity that I was able to finish college. Truthfully, I counted my blessings every day to be able to simply wake up and attend class. Through it all, I’m incredibly grateful for the love and support my parents have provided me along the way. I know I don’t say this enough, but mom and dad, you guys rock and I love you guys so much.

As I spend the next few years in New York City trying to make my mark on corporate america, I will never forget the humble place I came from and the warmth and fervor with which Cornell welcomed me into her embrace.

Any person, any study.

Phoebe Yu
Industrial and Labor Relations
Cornell University
Class of 2012

Different Sides of the Room

Cornell had several race-related incidents this year. There was the controversy over the oriental font used for a poster for comedian Margaret Cho, which resulted in the poster being pulled and apologies issued. More recently, there was an uproar about individuals at the Sigma Pi house throwing bottles at passing African American students and one non-Cornell student hurling insults with a reference to Trayvon Martin to taunt the students. The man responsible for the incident was later identified and fined.

These events have led me to examine my own experiences with race, experiences that thankfully have not been nearly as severe as what happened at Cornell. What really ignited my drive to explore this issue a small incident that happened during Cornell in Washington.

Towards the end of the CIW semester, we divided into small groups of 8 or 9 students to present our papers in seminar rooms. In my room, there was a long conference table at the center of the room and I sat at the side farther away from the door. The side closer to the door gradually filled up as students scrambled in with their notes and dashed to the first open seat they saw. Eventually, that side filled up except for one cramped seat in the middle while my side of the room had a handful of open spaces.

At this point, a girl in my program (who will remain anonymous) came into the room and wandered over to the more empty side of the table. Before she sat down, she thought for a moment, and then turned abruptly and made a beeline for the cramped chair which she pulled out to make room.

I was puzzled and curiosity got the better of me. “Ha, what’s wrong with this side of the table?” I asked lightly.

The girl seemed surprised that I asked. I could see her debating internally for a second, then she said something I will never forget, “Well, I thought Asians should sit on different sides of the room.”

My first reaction was to laugh, as if I had just heard a joke only the two Asian-American girls now at the opposite sides of the table could understand. My next reaction was to tell her “I knew what she meant,” to diffuse the tension that had permeated the room.

One of my friends in the room, trying to decipher the remark, piped up and said, “I don’t think that was as clear as you think it was.” People in the room laughed. Some nodded. The tension was gone and we started the paper presentations.

It was such a small incident that I kept asking myself why it continued to bother me. What was the big deal? Why did I feel this discomfort caused by the combination of empathy and disgust? Then I realized it bothered me because race was the sole basis for this individual’s decision was race. Someone purposely, consciously chose not to sit somewhere and chose a seat that was harder to get to because of race. It bothered me because if I was still the exact same person but had a different skin color, this musical chair would not have happened. I don’t think it was meant to be a personal affront, but there was something deeper there.

I told this story to a few close friends and they were confused – “She was Asian too, so what gives?” I understand the remark now, weeks later, no better than I did in the moment. What I grasped then was that it meant the two of us shouldn’t be in close proximity in a room, because it may draw attention to the fact that we’re both Asian, and that was somehow bad. Perhaps two Asians being together emphasize the Asian-ness of each person. This part I understood. When people with a shared characteristic group themselves together, they lose a bit of individuality, are perceived as a collective, and are referred to as said collective. That’s why in high school cliches you have “the jocks”  “the nerds” and  “the band geeks” and not “Steve” “Ted” or “Sue” the individuals who each have a diverse set of talents. From this, I inferred that perhaps this girl wanted to be her own individual, and not to be perceived as “one of the Asians.” That would mean she wanted to shed the racial identity she was born with and my mere presence was impeding her progress. So where does it end? If we should sit at opposite ends of the room, should we eat at different tables as well? Should we be friends with different friend groups?

I don’t know if I considered the remark racist (honestly, maybe it was just a paper-induced bad morning), but it did propel me into looking at research associated with intra-racial racism. This is an area that has received very little attention in social sciences literature. Intra-racial racism occurs “when an individual is discriminated against because of their race by a member of their own ethnic/racial group, as opposed to inter-racial racism where discrimination is also based on the notion of race but where the perpetrator and target of racism are from different racial groups” (Paradies, 2006, Oxford University Press). A 2004 study in the Journal of Black Psychology explored perceptions of inter- and intragroup racism in a sample of 269 black university students. It found that 15% of “problematic life experiences” in the subjects were attributed to intra-racial racism. Another paper out of Rutgers in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology found that 28% of African Americans and 15% of Latinos “reported intra-racial racism as the most prevalent form of racism they experienced.” This 2010 op-ed in the New York Times further explores the intra-racial issues associated with “colorist.” While Asians don’t physically exhibit “shades” of Asian-ness, I’m sure we fall along a spectrum on how strongly we identify with this race.

Intra-racial racism isn’t a priority in this day and age because there are more significant problems with INTER-ethnic group racism. Unfortunately, it’s still something we have to deal with. When we witness exchanges like this, is it justified? Is it something we can – and want to – change? There’s little reason to fault the person for doing it if it does conform to that status quo, but i wonder if we could change that status quo.

Snippets of D.C.

I admit, I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties. Here are some D.C. pictures from the Cornell in Washington program to make up for it. I’m living in the Cornell Center at the lovely Dupont Circle and working at the U.S. Supreme Court as a Judicial Intern (more information about it here if anyone’s interested in interning in the summer! I can’t stop gushing about the internship. It’s amazing. Please apply!).

Obligatory picture with the Washington Monument.

Went to a Caps v. Lightning hockey game at the Verizon Center.

Fell in love with the Third Branch.

Witnessed protests when the Occupiers came to Capitol Hill.

Chilled at the Cornell Center.

Had a mini-Oxford reunion of sort.

Was dazzled by a Cirque de Symphonie performance at the Kennedy Center.

 Hopefully more updates soon!

Phoebe Yu's humble and loquacious musings at Cornell University