Can I Ever Really Give Back?

My Cornell diploma is secured in an expensive Cornell diploma frame, now hung at home in Delhi, India. It looks disproportionately large in our small living room. Next to the frame is a large window, so carelessly painted that its dull violet color slightly spills over onto the grill and walls.The few pieces of furniture in the room are nearly as old as I am and their wear is apparent. My fancy Ivy League diploma frame looks out of place in its average Indian middle-class home.

My life at Cornell and my life-to-be at Microsoft both seem dream-like when I contemplate them at home. When I considered applying to Ivy League universities, the $250,000 price tag alone should have been discouraging enough for someone with my financial background. I was not discouraged only because I received overwhelming generosity at every step along the way.

In 2011, Oracle organized the ThinkQuest International Competition and for being in one of the winning teams, I got a sponsored trip to Oracle’s headquarters in San Francisco. During that trip, I visited the Stanford campus and my elite-American-university dream became definite will.

In 2012, I applied to Summer Science Program (SSP), a 6-week residential program in college level experimental science. SSP not only accepted me but also waived the entire $5,500 fee and contributed to my airfare from India. SSP was an intensely rewarding experience that left me hungry for more. SSP students also have a history of being admitted to elite universities. So I became optimistic about my own chances in college admissions.

In 2013, Cornell offered me the Tata Scholarship, which covered every reasonable expense of attending Cornell. The generosity didn’t stop at admissions. When I went to Ecuador through a Cornell course, I received nearly $2000 in funding through various Cornell departments but was still shy of the cost of the trip. Professor Jim Lassoie, one of the instructors of the course, helped me with financial aid from his own non-profit in Environmental Education.

Support also came from many others in non-monetary forms.

  • The Prospect of Whitby, a co-operative house at Cornell, gave me a welcoming community and a place where I felt like I belonged when I most needed it.
  • Professor Nate Foster at Cornell CS very generously accepted and guided me as a Research Assistant, although I judge myself to have been inadequately prepared for it. It was my first properly paid job and I learned tons from Professor Foster and his team.
  • Professor Stephen Morreale always made time in his busy schedule to hear about my undertakings and anxieties. He functioned as my advisor although he had no obligation to do so.
  • Professor Robert Travers welcomed me to inspiring hour-long conversations about History, poetry, and India and inadvertently gave me insight and perspective on my academic/career plans. It was an absolute pleasure to monopolize his office hours.
  • Mrs.Cheung, my landlady in my senior year, constantly surprised me with her extraordinary concern and goodwill for students.
  • When I was stranded at JFK Airport for a night, a family which didn’t know me, but knew my good friend at Cornell, picked me up from the airport and let me stay with them. So much kindness from strangers!
  • Mr.Isomura and Mr.Sripada, my manager and mentor (respectively) at my Microsoft internship guided me through my first corporate work experience. They were personally invested in my learning and growth, beyond the strict requirements of their roles.
  • Several friends have stood by me along the way and really made Cornell home for me. I will not try to make a comprehensive list.
  • Most of all, my parents to whom I owe all successes. They’re my greatest champions, believing in me when even I don’t and supporting me through all the backstage breakdowns.
  • And this list is definitely incomplete.

Looking at my Cornell diploma, my Microsoft offer letter and the opportunities ahead, I feel profound gratitude and want to repay all this generosity. I’ve begun donating back to Cornell and SSP. But how much is enough giving back? Is it enough to donate as much as I received? Maybe twice? Ten times that amount?

When banks provide loans, they take into account your ability to pay it back. When SSP and Cornell granted me scholarships, my ability to pay back was zero. They bet on me when I had few choices, any success was highly uncertain and the stakes were high. Attending SSP changed the course of my life. Attending Cornell has changed my reality and the scope of my dreams. I can keep trying, but I can’t ever repay the generosity, much less the time, concern or love I’ve received.

All I can do there is say thank you, to these individuals, communities, and institutions. And although I can never give back what I received, what I can do it pay the generosity forward. That’s a lengthy, intimate end to my Cornell blog. Follow me onto new adventures at my new blog on Medium @sushkrish.