Passion, Traveling, and Taking Chances: A Conversation with Assistant Professor Jenny Goldstein

Written by Polson Institute Undergraduate Fellow, Keelin Kelly ’20

Whether it’s research food sovereignty in Malawi, or collaborating on cash crop projects in China, the faculty of DSOC extends their reach throughout the globe. How did our professors end up where they are today, doing work that many undergraduates dream of doing? I sat down with the newest faculty addition to the Development Sociology Department, Assistant Professor Jenny Goldstein, to discuss how she arrived in Ithaca, and what advice she has to students who are looking to do the same.

Jenny studied architecture as an undergraduate at Barnard College; however, she quickly realized that she preferred working with theoretical applications outside of a studio. She switched to a history of theory and architecture track, completing her senior research thesis on the history of Kyoto’s city grid through inspiration drawn from Andre Lefebvre’s Production of Space. At the time, Jenny did not realize that applying spatial theory to her own independent research would appear as ‘advanced’ for a senior honors thesis. She described how when reading Lefebvre, she did not quite understand the theory. It was only when in the streets of Kyoto, she realized how accurately Lefebvre’s writings applied to the city’s contours. Despite the glut of information we consume as undergraduates, the information we find useful or important on our path can be surprising.

After graduating, Jenny did not immediately go into academia. Instead, she drove cross-country to Napa Valley and began working in a winery. She laughed at how unprepared she was to work in agriculture, reminiscing on how she showed up on her first day wearing sandals (any agricultural worker knows that closed-toed shoes are a must). She worked in Napa for a year and began working at a landscape design company, while also teaching yoga. Working for an organic winery served as a detour that fed her fascination with local food systems; an essential staging point for her decision to explore her interests further in graduate school. Her tipping point of moving away from architecture came to bear during her tenure with the landscape design company, where she was tied to a desk from nine to five. Intellectually unsatisfied, she recounts googling schools in California that combined her interests. She found the UC Berkeley geography webpage that described geography as a combination of local food systems, agriculture and spatial theory, and she thought “Oh my god, these are all my things in one department!” Upon this realization, she visited UC Berkeley, but then found that UCLA was a better fit, and enrolled in their geography graduate program.

Though she had second thoughts about going to school once again, with the encouragement of her parents Jenny took the leap and started her masters at UCLA. Unsure of where to do her research, a friend who was working on the Millennium Development Goals in Rwanda suggested Jenny come stay with her to find fruitful subjects of study in the field. Jenny followed and wrote her masters thesis on coffee production in Rwanda. That uncertainty reared again when it came to deciding on a dissertation topic. The advice that she was receiving was that whatever country you do your dissertation on, you should be ready to ‘marry’, because that is the country you will be working in from thereon. Rwanda wasn’t a strong fit, but she knew wanted to continue working on food systems and political ecology.  Jenny decided that she would take a chance on Indonesia; Funding for research was plentiful, and the country’s complexity and diversity lent itself to endless study. She traveled to Indonesia for a summer language program to begin preparing for the required academic commitment and on first blush, found she did not like it at all. Yet she persisted, and came to love working in Indonesia, where she continues to do research today.

Jenny’s journey did not have a straightforward trajectory, nor a definite destination. She knew the things that she was interested in, and often followed her impulses. Yet, by following what she was passionate about, she found experiences and places that led her to Cornell. If it was not for taking a chance and working in a winery, she would not have ended up in California doing her graduate work at UCLA. If she had not attended a workshop at Cornell, she would not have applied for a post-doctorate here and eventually a full-time position. Often, we are taught at Cornell that there is a certain way of approaching your career. You get an internship in your field, then you graduate and either get a job, or go onto graduate school. You never hear of the success that comes from following your passions or driving cross-country to work in a winery like Jenny did. It’s okay to not know what you want to do, or that you do not follow the ‘standard’ career path. Follow your passions, and happiness will likely accompany you along the way.



Skip to toolbar