written by
McKenzie Murray

Black Students and College Admissions: Cornell’s Campus Culture

Community school spotlight 10 min read
 two black students smile and laugh at the camera, while standing against a white back drop
Photographer: Thought Catalog | Source: Unsplash

In the second installment of our series Black Students and College Admissions, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert McKenzie details the structures at Cornell designed to facilitate Black students' experiences on campus as well as how to adjust to Cornell (or any PWI) as a BIPOC student.

CollegeAdvisor.com acknowledges that each individual’s experience is unique and not necessarily representative of the institutions referenced. Accordingly, the views expressed in this piece are those of an individual rather than those of CollegeAdvisor.com. We share this perspective in order to uplift the experiences of historically underrepresented groups and broaden our community’s understanding of the complexities facing marginalized populations in higher education.

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Academics and Support for Black Students

Before expanding on the experiences of Black students at Cornell specifically, it's important to explain Cornell's academic environment. This environment also resembles that of many predominantly white institutions (PWIs).

“Any person, any study”

Cornell is a research university, though it offers an array of programs and courses in the humanities. The university contains 16 schools that offer both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Students can also declare different pre-professional tracks or apply for early admission into law school or other graduate programs. Overall, Cornell lives up to the second part of their motto, “any person, any study” by offering some of the world’s best and most rigorous programs.

The first part of their motto “any person,” establishes the university’s commitment to equal opportunity regardless of race or gender. Still, Black students face many challenges at Cornell despite programs designed to bolster equality. Although Cornell has taken measures to reduce the gap between Black students and their peers, many students still face limitations to their academic success.

Professors and Faculty at Cornell

Broadly speaking, the proportion of Black faculty and staff at Cornell is very low. According to 2019 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, of 738 professors and associate professors, only 22 are Black or African American. Many students go their whole college career without having a Black professor. As one student puts it, “Being Black [at] Cornell means you felt lucky to have two Black professors over the four years…. When you switched majors, you ended up having zero.”

Quality professors can come from a variety of backgrounds, but representation matters. Most Black and BIPOC students have a better experience when they can learn from someone who shares their culture and experiences. Moreover, the student body as a whole benefits from a diversity in perspectives on course material.

My Course Experience

I was surprised and excited when I found that my first Intro to Public Health course was taught by Dr. Tashara Leak, a Black woman whose teaching team consisted of other women of color. Professor Leak and I had a lot in common in both our interests and our experiences. This made her course even more enlightening.

The discussions in Dr. Leak’s class were unique. We read the biography of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in the 1950s. Those cells, still reproduced today, are behind some of the most significant advances in medical research. The discussions we had about race, poverty, the STEM field, and so many other topics were honest and rich.

Experiences like these, however, are few and far between. I recommend reading Jyothsna Bolleddula’s article for more information about how the lack of diversity in staff members impacts the few Black professors and students at Cornell.

Why Diversity in Faculty Matters

Indeed, there are reasons why students of color seek out professors of similar backgrounds and cultures. These reasons largely stem from experiences of discrimination, microaggressions, and overt racism. While I have not personally experienced this, I have heard about and seen unfair treatment of Black students on campus.

In a class on the history of capitalism, for instance, one professor reportedly said that “Slavery wasn’t as bad as some say because slave owners would’ve needed to treat their property well to see a return on their investments.” You can find accounts of similar situations through social media and official reports.

Securing research opportunities is difficult for many students of color due to preferential treatment given to white students. BIPOC students may also struggle to find mentors due to the lack of diversity in many departments. Similarly, BIPOC professors and faculty at Cornell struggle to provide support for students as the demand for representation grows, but the diversity of the staff does not.

Adjusting to Cornell as a Black Student

Students from underrepresented backgrounds often struggle to succeed in college due to disparities in the K-12 education system. Those from private schools or more affluent communities have greater access to college admissions resources and tend to be better prepared for college. As a student, it is intimidating to hear affluent students talk about the many AP courses they took, the number of tutors they worked with, or the test prep courses that they were able to take–resources often unavailable in lower-income communities. Cornell admits a number of “legacy” students whose families have attended Cornell for generations, a title that very few BIPOC can claim.

This leads many lower-income and BIPOC students to feel a sense of imposter syndrome. One student reveals, “Being Black at Cornell is having people assume I only got in because of Affirmative Action.” In a perfect world, students would be admitted into schools solely on merit and the dynamic they can bring to campus; Affirmative Action ensures that students from historically marginalized groups are not overlooked.

Biases aside, I think Cornell is an inclusive learning environment in most spaces. Most students do not promote a “cutthroat” atmosphere, and we support each other even in competitive courses. Moreover, Cornell offers a number of resources to help students adjust to its rigorous academics.

Campus Life, Social Climate, and Socio-emotional Support for Black Students

With such a small percent of Black students on campus, you may be concerned about finding a space where you belong outside of the classroom. Luckily, Cornell features a wide variety of spaces and activities.

Program Housing

Naturally, students worry about what residential life will be like on campus. After all, this will be your home for the next four years! For Black students, residential life can be especially nerve-racking. Black students feel pressured to “put on a face” in public settings. Their dorms should be a space where they can feel safe and reset. For these reasons, Cornell provides Black students with a variety of housing options.

Ujamaa (pronounced “OO-juh-muh”) or UJ Residential College, is a program house and cultural center where students can learn about and celebrate the African Diaspora. The residence includes Black students of American, African, Caribbean, and Hispanic descent, as well as other cultural heritages. Founded in 1972 following the takeover of Willard Straight Hall (1969), Ujamaa, was Cornell’s response to the unjust treatment of Black students on campus and elsewhere in the U.S. The residential hall is a haven for Black students on campus. It hosts cultural events and celebrations as well as important conferences on racial injustice, education, and empowerment. Although established for Black students, students of any background or identity are able to apply for residence at Ujamaa. A safe space for all students, Ujamaa is a pillar of the Cornell community.

Other affinity-based program houses include the Multicultural Living and Learning Unit, Loving House (LGBTQIA+ Affinity), the Latino Living Center, Akwe:kon (Indigenous Affinity), and the Holland International Living Center. Here, students can build lasting community by living in these houses all four years. There are also program houses based on interest, such as Just About Music (JAM).

Conventional Housing

While these are great options for housing, the majority of students reside in conventional dorms. Incoming freshmen move into randomly assigned halls that have their own traditions and personalities. These can range from the party vibe of Court-Kay-Bauer (CKB) to the quieter Low Rises. You do not get to choose your dorm, but you can submit a preference for a single or shared dorm. You also fill out a survey describing your lifestyle.

Affinity Groups

There are several Black and BIPOC affinity-based groups on campus. Those looking for career advice and networking opportunities might explore Black Gen Capital (Investments), the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Black Ivy Pre-Law Society. For those looking to perform and have fun, the CCSADE (dance team) and the Phenomenon Step Team will give you a chance to show off your dance skills. For female-identifying students, the Black Women’s Support Network and Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (BOSS) can provide the bonds and resources you seek. If you want to learn about Black culture and build a community, you may look to the Caribbean Students’ Association, Black Students United, the Pan-African Students Association, or Scholars in Our Society and Africa (SOSA).

Greek Life

Greek life offers another popular way of socialization and networking. Many Black students look towards the Divine Nine. These Black fraternities and sororities founded throughout the twentieth century focus on service and community. As with many PWIs, Cornell offers limited options for Black Greek life. This means that you may not have options to pledge (Cornell only has 4 chapters available).

Service and Advocacy

Finally, many students find belonging at Cornell through service, social justice, and advocacy. Some students run for student government to spread awareness of social causes, influence campus culture, and network within politics. Another organization with elected roles is the Office of Student Advocate (OSA). If you are more interested in niche issues, advocacy, or working outside of the Cornell community, groups like A Seat at the Table, Students Onto Scholars Educational Outreach, and Cornell Student Assembly all do amazing work for students and society as a whole.

As a member of Students Onto Scholars, I have assisted local students with college admissions and helped tackle disparities in education. These clubs tend have the largest engagement from the BIPOC community. To find students who share your values, look for the groups making the most noise for equity and change.

Black Students and Self Care

Self-care is an essential component of success. A form of self-care often overlooked when it comes to resources is hair care. For Black students, hair care is important, especially at PWIs. Access to barbershops, salons, or beauty supply stores can make a huge difference in a student’s experience.

In Ithaca’s downtown area, there are two barbershops and one Black-owned beauty supply store. Most students opt for DIY methods and shop for products online.

However, if you don’t want to use multiple mirrors to part your hair, there is a large network of Black students on campus who do hair! Follow their social media pages, or find them through word of mouth. These student stylists include braiders, barbers, and twist and loc gurus. You can also find helpful resources from the Curly Initiative, a club dedicated to curly, kinky, coily, and Black hair care.

The Black Community at Cornell

Cornell’s Black community includes students with unique interests, talents, and achievements who come from many different backgrounds. Black students make up a number of clubs and organizations around campus. Some even run their own businesses such as Rare Concepts NYC, a streetwear clothing brand launched by Kareem Hill (’23).

The Black community shows love and support for each other and the rest of the Cornell community in different ways. Hyping posts on Instagram, supporting Black-owned businesses, providing spaces for inclusivity on campus, or advocating for better treatment of BIPOC students are just a few of the many ways we show love. As a student in this community, you will feel welcomed and seen.

The Social Climate of Cornell

Cornell’s community and messaging is considered both liberal and open-minded. The university promotes ideas that revolve around social causes and change.

Most schools or organizations that make these claims still uphold white supremacy, patriarchy, and other discriminatory practices. Cornell’s principle of “any person, any study” may lead to initiatives for inclusivity, but Black students and other marginalized groups still face racism and discrimination.

Conclusion

In this installment, I outlined how Cornell's academic and social structures impact the experiences of its BIPOC students. In the next article, I'll expand more on my experiences at Cornell as well as how the university hopes to promote racial justice.


This is the second article in a series written by McKenzie Murray about her experience and observations as a Black student at Cornell University. To learn more about Cornell and how BIPOC students feel about its campus culture, stay tuned for the next article. Meanwhile, if you want to get help with your college applications from McKenzie or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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