This is the third and final installment of CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert McKenzie Murray's series on Black students at Cornell University. In this article, McKenzie discusses her own experiences at Cornell as well as the university's plans for the future.
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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Black Students at Cornell
Black students at Cornell can (and do) excel in many ways. However, the university still perpetuates a culture of inequity in the classroom and beyond.
Facing Discrimination in Class
Despite diversity in programs and majors, Black students only make up about 5% of Cornell’s student population. Black students are and often feel like the “only one” in the class. This leads to feelings of isolation, stress, and imposter syndrome.
BIPOC students feel pressured to represent their whole race in these spaces. During my second semester, I took a class where I was one of two Black students. I enjoyed the class, but felt like I got a few stares discussing my majority-Black, Title I high school or racial discrimination in education. The professor claimed that science was the least problematic subject taught in schools, and I brought up eugenics. When I rebutted his claim, the room went quiet. I laughed it off, but it was awkward and isolating. This experience is just an example of what Black students at Cornell and other predominantly white institutions experience.
Cultures of Inequity at Cornell
No one class or major has a particularly large population of Black students. You can find Black students within STEM and the humanities, but the proportion depends on each year’s demographics. The disrespect and bigotry Black students face diminishes their academic experience. A recent graduate shared how their eligibility for a MBA program was under constant scrutiny. They said, “[Despite it being a merit-based program], a classmate once suggested that Black students’ acceptance into the program must be ‘income-based’ in order to boost the school’s diversity numbers. There are only 2 Black people in my 25-person fellowship cohort.” Other students echo these experiences. Some recall professors telling them not to apply for large internships because they would “never get them.”
Black students excel in their studies despite these challenges. However, Cornell must make substantial changes to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment for all students.
Academic Support for Black Students
Given this environment, many students require support in the transition to college. Cornell offers academic support for all students, including resources specifically for BIPOC students.
The first place you should look for support is within the course itself. Each professor and TA has office hours where students can ask questions or receive additional instruction. Cornell also offers resource centers for students to receive tutoring and writing support.
Students are provided academic advisors based on their major, pre-professional track, and/or identity. Academic advisors help students choose the best courses for their major, stay on track for graduation, and access career support. You can also talk to them if you have second thoughts about your major or pre-professional track. You can reach your advisor by emailing them or scheduling an appointment.
During busier times such as finals or graduation, it may be challenging to schedule an appointment with your advisor. During those times, I had to schedule an appointment weeks later than I wanted. To make sure you can get the support you need, contact your advisor early.
Want resources based on your experience? Cornell supports identity-based networks (i.e. BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, Low-Income, First-Generation, etc.) led by both faculty and students. Some students find these helpful, but there have been some concerns and reports of bias.
Concerns About Advising and Support
BIPOC students have reported advisors discouraging them from pursuing certain majors or career paths. One biological science major said, “Being black at Cornell is… asking an advisor for information on research opportunities and being told to just go to the minority student affairs office if I need a job.”
At the College of Human Ecology, one advisor has explicitly told students to drop courses or switch their major based on the assumption that the student was not capable of succeeding. An incoming freshman told me that her advisor recommended she switch majors because it was, “… going to be too hard for her.” She hadn’t even taken a class.
I worked with this advisor and also felt displeased with her service. I spoke with her when I wanted to switch majors. Without checking my file, she lectured me on falling behind. When she read my file, she saw that I was ahead of my requirements and her tone changed from dismissive to respectful. Students of color in other colleges and departments have echoed these concerns.
Navigating Tensions in Advising
If you have an experience like this, I want to remind you to own your academic experience. An advisor is only there to do just that: advise. They cannot make you take any courses or switch your major.
Nonetheless, it may feel difficult to disagree with their suggestions, especially if you are unsure about your path. A good rule of thumb: any advisor can tell you that a major or program may be difficult, but a good advisor will also tell you how to navigate those challenges. An advisor or anyone who only tells you to change your path because they think you will fail is not looking out for your best interests. Take what they say with a grain of salt and look elsewhere for support.
Peer Advising for Black Students
During my first semester at Cornell, I joined the Human Ecology Peer Partnership Program. This program provides mentorship through a network of faculty and upper-class students to incoming students of color. Through it, I met other students with similar backgrounds and interests. My mentor was a senior. I asked him what courses were like, where to look for scholarships, and what it was like to be a Black student at Cornell (good, bad, or otherwise). Other departments host similar programs, and students form study groups outside of class. Study groups provide academic support and help build community.
Facing Disparities in Education
Despite these resources, many students still report feeling behind their peers due to educational resource disparities. In response to these gaps, Cornell established preparatory programs for students from underserved or disadvantaged high schools. These programs help them adjust Cornell’s learning environment.
One notable program is the Pre-Freshman Summer Program (PSP). This six-week residential summer program introduces incoming students to Cornell student life and the rigorous curriculum. The program was created as a part of Cornell’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative. Depending on their circumstances, the program is optional for some students, and a requirement of admission for others.
Though well-intentioned, many feel that the program is biased, and even discriminatory towards students of color, especially when they have to participate for admission. PSP puts a lot of pressure on students required to attend. Missing or leaving the program early can result in a forfeiture of their spot at Cornell. The program’s length is also a concern. Students required to attend have very little time to relax before school begins. Some believe this program encourages students of color to change their minds about attending Cornell. The general consensus among students is that PSP is harder than most courses at Cornell. On a positive note, some students report that they made friends and received mentorship from upperclassmen.
Other centers and academic supports for BIPOC students include the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives (OADI), the Association for Students of Color, the First-in-Class (FIC) program, and the McNair Scholars Program.
Racism and Discrimination
Establishing a sense of belonging at Cornell can be difficult at times. Tokenism is pervasive, particularly among many Greek and exclusive organizations. They often accept a handful of students of color in order to meet Cornell’s diversity policy and receive funding.
In my experience, most racism and discrimination at Cornell happens in social settings. Black students are often denied entry into parties. They’re told told it is “at capacity” while white students are permitted to enter. Some white students also make comments about Black students’ eligibility for certain programs and question their presence at Cornell. Non-Black students using racial slurs is almost normal in some social settings. Microagressions and outright racism are as common at Cornell as at any PWI. As one student states, “I posted on my private Instagram account that I was feeling the pressure of both being black and a student at Cornell. A white colleague swiped up and said I should be grateful and not complain because everyone has their own issues to deal with, completely invalidating the Black student experience at Cornell.”
At the same time, the Cornell community is making some positive changes. In fall 2020, students pushed to disarm the Cornell campus police and increase transparency in campus security. This was a response to the Black Lives Matter movement and concerns surrounding police brutality. Student activists described their concerns with campus police and the unfair treatment of BIPOC students at Cornell. Though students of all ethnicities protested, various organizations targeted and harassed BIPOC students, sending hate mail and threats. In response to this and other problems regarding racism and discrimination, the organization Do Better Cornell is trying to address these issues.
Socioeconomic Disparities Faced by Black Students
Along with racial issues, many BIPOC students find that the socioeconomic gaps between students are a major source of stress. It goes without saying that many wealthy students attend the Ivies. Students of color from middle or low-income communities recognize immediately how different they are from their peers. Once you hear a student complaining about a yacht, you become very aware of these disparities. Add on the high cost of living in Ithaca, and university-related fees ($17 per dining hall meal). It’s easy to see how money is a cause of concern for many students.
Black organization and clubs also face financial difficulties. The Black student population is relatively small, so there tends to be less financial support than larger or more affluent groups. This exacerbates preexisting economic tensions between Black students and their peers.
Social Support for Black Students at Cornell
The most essential support system for Black students is their friends. It’s crucial to find spaces and groups on campus where you can be yourself. Your peers are also the most vocal about how to make Cornell a better place for all students. Peer-to-peer relationships support the entire community.
If you need more professional help, Cornell Health and the Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) provide resources and care for both physical and mental health as well as mental illness. Organizations like Cornell Minds Matter also do great work in providing advice on self-care and mental health.
Actions Cornell is taking to improve the experience of and opportunities for Black Students
The administration and faculty at Cornell understand the issues that marginalized groups face, and they have taken various actions to address them. That being said, not all of these measures have been effective.
Cornell is providing anti-Racism and inclusion courses and resources for students and faculty. Most of these programs are optional, so anyone that is against or indifferent to learning about how to mitigate bias and discrimination probably will not take them. They are good resources, but typically overlooked.
Cornell offers some mandatory programs for students such as the courses initiated by the Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP). One program, Community at Cornell, offers a three-part course filled with self-reflection exercises and open discussions among students. For students in the College of Human Ecology, ILR, and a few other schools, this is a three-hour mandatory session. While the session was informative, its short-form nature cannot adequately address issues of racism, discrimination, and bias. As a participant, I do not think that it achieved what it intended. It was a good conversation starter, but there was no problem-solving. In order to have an impact on the community, we need more than a single mandatory seminar.
Final Advice for Black Students
I recommend that prospective students reach out to current and former students to get a better idea of life at Cornell. A student can provide more insight into campus life. During quarantine, I reached out to a few upperclassmen to ask about majors, pre-med resources, and general student life. All of them were very nice, and one even invited me to join a few meetings for pre-med students of color and helped me pick classes for my first semester.
Another place to look is the internet and social media. On YouTube, you can find countless tours, vlogs, and reviews of Cornell to really get a feel for the place. Reddit and Instagram are good sites to find out the good, bad, and ugly. Some popular pages include @blackatcornell and @blackivystories. Remember, these are only some students’ criticisms. They shouldn’t deter you from applying to Cornell if you want to attend. However, it is wise to take other’s perspectives into consideration before choosing a school.
When researching schools, try to get a balanced view (i.e. academic, social, etc.) to make an informed decision. Choosing a school is a big decision. Your university should be a place where you are happy, comfortable, and supported in all regards.
Although there are things I feel should change at Cornell, I would not change my decision to attend. Cornell provides me the space to explore my interests and grow into the person I want to be, both personally and professionally. Though I am still learning to navigate through my college experience, I think there is enough support from the community to do so.
I hope this series offered an insightful look into what it is like to be Black at Cornell. Our diverse group of advisors is also here to assist you in navigating the many options in order to find the best school for you. At the end of the day, what matters most is that you pick a school that will give you the tools you need to succeed!
This is the final article in a series written by McKenzie Murray about her experience and observations as a Black student at Cornell University. If you want to get help with your college applications from McKenzie or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.