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.

Commencement Weekend Highlights

Of the various events leading upto commencement ceremony, Joe Biden’s speech was probably the most looked forward to. It was great to hear him speak, live and in person. His speech emphasized treating others with the dignity you expect for yourself, the classic American ideal of equal access to opportunity and a call for students to engage with social systems that are broken. But Biden’s speech was not the one that resonated the most with me.

Candid with my mom at graduation.

Cornell’s Phi Beta Kappa Society held a reception for its graduating seniors and the faculty president, Professor Daniel Schwarz delivered a speech. In it, he quoted from C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka”. Here’s the poem, as I found it on Cavafy’s archives. I might be violating some copyright laws or licenses here.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
 
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
 
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

The italicized portion is what the Professor quoted. Apart from the literary merits of the poem and masterful use of themes from the Odyssey, and the cute Ithaca-Ithaka link, I felt a very personal connection to it. I’m ambitious and driven, like many of my classmates at Cornell. We seek successful lives, our Ithakas, in various forms: impact, fame, money, scientific discovery, or brilliance. If we achieve that success at a young age, we appear even more successful. The sooner I arrive at my definition of success, the richer I expect my life to be.

What Cavafy says is that the destination itself has nothing to offer me. Becoming CEO of a top tech company alone will not make my life richer. What will be rich are the experiences, ups and downs and wisdom I will gain on the journey. Still, this does not undervalue the ends. The ends are what motivate me to set out on the journey in the first place.

What does all this translate to practically? When I was in high school, it was a dream to study at an Ivy League university. Now I’m graduating with a degree from one. But this degree alone means little. It might open a few doors for me in the next few years and some people might hold me in higher regard for it. But going forward what will really matter is what I’ve actually learnt and who I’ve become in the last four years.

Lindsay France/University Photography. Commencement Ceremony on May 28, 2017 at Schoekolpf Stadium.

What a perfect segway to the other impactful speech on commencement weekend. Cornell’s new president, Martha Pollack, also addressed the graduating class. Part of her speech was framed by, “Your values have power.” I have learnt a lot from my classes at Cornell which are great for the job market. But what I cherish most will be the values I’ve embraced here, some of which President Pollack’s speech touched upon:

  • Commitment to Service
    Cornell is a land grant university. It has deep roots in public service, especially when it comes to applying scientific research and knowledge to benefit society. An alum and fellow blogger explains this beautifully in What does ‘Land Grant’ really mean and why you should care.
  • Elite yet Egalitarian
    This is enmeshed in Cornell’s ‘Any Person, Any Study’. The fact that I could attend Cornell and graduate from it is enough evidence of Cornell’s egalitarianism for me. Cornell also has partnerships with several community colleges in NY state, allowing many of their best students a chance to transfer to Cornell for their junior years. Some of my friends who had transferred this way have given me a picture of the United States which I could not have traditionally found in the Arts Quad or West campus’ frat rows. Also, the same fellow blogger has a lot to say on this: Elite, Not Elitist.
  • Resilience
  • Love and respect for nature
    If I have to explain this to you, please just look at Cornell’s campus!

Updates and Upcoming

Updates on the activities from my previous post:

  1. I had high hopes for winning something at the Big Idea Competition. There were only 5 contestants for 3 prizes and I did consider myself a stronger candidate. Unfortunately, I did not win. I came away with a list of grievances about how the final was conducted. Although several friends (mostly frank and skeptical people) who attended the final also agree with my complaints, I am not sure if I should voice them because the legitimacy of my complaints is compromised by my experience of not winning.
    More importantly, this means I don’t have funding to run my CS summer program in June. So now I’m bootstrapping: investing some of my own money.
  2. I had applied to two MBA programs – Harvard Business School’s 2+2 and Stanford GSB’s Deferred MBA program. I was invited to interview at Harvard, for which I was in Boston this past weekend. I will hear back with a final response on May 17th – that’s less than one week!

    Baker Library at Harvard Business School

    I haven’t been invited to interview at Stanford yet, and at this point, I can safely assume that it’s a rejection. In any case, I plan to write a series with more details on my application and interview experience next week.

In other news,

Yesterday was my final slope day at Cornell and it was a bucket of fun with some of my closest friends here.

That’s what the slope looks like on slope day.

Now we’re in reading days for finals. I have 3 essays, 1 take-home exam and 1 final exam all due next week. While saying goodbye to some friends here is going to be difficult and I’m already getting nostalgic about my Cornell years, I’m so ready to be done with finals!

Senior Semester anxiety+excitement

For most seniors, the last semester tends be the least stressful. Many students have job offers from their summer internships or fall recruitment, so Spring is time to kick back and for once, take it lighter on this campus. Although I did already have a job and knew where I was headed after graduation, this semester has been full of anxiety for me. There are two things looming large on my mind.

The first is that early in April, I submitted applications to two deferred MBA programs. If admitted, I can matriculate after 2-4 years of full time work experience. These applications feel like college applications all over again. First it was the stressful experience of writing the essays and putting together the application when your work never feels good enough. Now it’s the nerve-wrecking waiting when one day I think I’m a competitive applicant and the next day I’m agonizing over all the problems with my essay  ( which apparently I couldn’t identify before the deadline!) and the potential holes in my resume.

The second is that I’m putting together CS programs for high school students in Delhi in June. I’m the curriculum designer, the operations manager, grant application writer and to-be instructor. It’s hard to do all that from a remote location, with a regular course load at Cornell and MBA applications on top of that. What’s nerve-wrecking here is that I’m competing at Cornell’s Big Idea Competition where the top prize will be $3000 and also a senior prize which can be up-to $7000. Even $3000 will fully fund the pilot program of 2 weeks for 50 students. That’s about $30 per student per week. Affordability is key to this venture. The final pitch competition is happening next week and I should hear back about the senior prize within a month.

In exactly one month, I will be done with everything I’m waiting to hear back from. I will also be done with my very last undergraduate exam. There should be more breathing room then. Meanwhile, I’m holding onto this excitement+anxiety!