The story of Cornell is one of trail blazing, risk taking, challenges, and setbacks—not unlike the experiences of a first-year Cornell student. It’s a tale with relevance to every student who ever snacked on a chicken nugget (invented by Cornell professor Robert C. Baker ’43), borrowed a library book (first allowed at Cornell before other colleges), or enjoyed air conditioning (thanks to Cornell engineer Willis H. Carrier, Class of 1901).

I remember my own arrival on campus in 2003, nervous about the swim test and first day of classes. Growing up in the Ithaca area in a family of Cornellians made it easy to take Cornell for granted, but I was captivated as I immersed myself in the campus culture and learned about its past. Every building and plaque represented a story and a Cornellian who changed the world. Now, 10 years later, I “bleed Big Red” as an alumnus, staff member, and lecturer for a 400-student class on Cornell’s unique history.

Cornell University was founded in 1865 by two men who wanted to challenge the status quo: Ezra Cornell, a farmer and entrepreneur who believed in the accessibility of education to all, and Andrew Dickson White, a scholar and diplomat who was frustrated by the rote learning In April 2015, Cornell University will reach the sesquicentennial of its founding—its 150th birthday. Although younger than its Ivy League peers, Cornell proudly celebrates a rich history of tradition and innovation as a pioneer in higher education. and narrow curriculum that characterized most American universities. A national need for practical training in agriculture and engineering led Congress to pass the Morrill Act in 1862, providing support for the establishment of land-grant colleges in each state. This legislation became the catalyst for Cornell and White to join forces and found Cornell University as the land-grant institution of New York State.

Having amassed a fortune in the telegraph business, Ezra Cornell offered a half million dollars and his farm in Ithaca to establish the new university. The plan of organization was drafted by Andrew Dickson White, drawing on his experiences at Yale, Michigan, and prestigious universities throughout Europe. Both men felt strongly about student access for all, freedom from sectarian influences, and the importance of both classical and practical disciplines. The new university would not only have great libraries but also great laboratories and workshops. Their forward-thinking philosophies, combined with the public service mission of the Morrill Act, developed into the foundational principles of the new university.

With White elected as the founding president, Ezra Cornell’s stated goal became the university motto: “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” This radical concept of a diverse student body and broad curriculum placed the new university at the forefront of a national shift in higher education. Cornell was the first major eastern university to admit women as well as men and was among the first nationwide to welcome all students regardless of race or religion at a time when many colleges were presided over by clergy. Cornell broke the mold by offering practical and professional courses of study, like agriculture and engineering, as academic equals to more traditional classical curriculum, like languages, literature, and history. Ezra’s school became the model for the modern university and was called the “first American university” by educational historian Frederick Rudolph.

Cornell isn’t just four years; it’s forever.

Nearly 150 years later, Cornell remains true to the vision of its founders and continues to innovate. The four-year programs in architecture, hotel administration, and industrial and labor relations were the first of their kind in the country. A pioneer of electrical engineering and veterinary medicine in the nineteenth century, Cornell explores new disciplines like nanotechnology, biomedical engineering, and fiber science and apparel design in the twenty-first century. With an eye on the future, plans are underway to build Cornell NYC Tech, an applied sciences campus in New York City.

Cornellians past and present are linked by a sense of history and tradition. We all share a common experience that transcends class year, whether it’s passing the swim test, appreciating the natural beauty of campus, parading on Dragon Day, or just hiking up Libe Slope on a snowy winter day. I’m reminded of this Big Red bond each time I see a Cornell sweatshirt or baseball cap hundreds of miles from Ithaca, usually worn proudly by a parent, alumnus, or alumna.

Being a Cornellian means joining a network that includes more than 250,000 alumni, families, and friends around the world. Their loyalty and enthusiasm (often on display at hockey games) can rival that of nearly any other university, leading some to call Cornell the “Ivy League school with a Big Ten heart.” Engaged alumni and friends continue to shape Cornell throughout their lives by volunteering their time, talent, and treasure. Cornell isn’t just four years; it’s forever.

Opportunities abound for current students to interact with alumni, young and old. Alumni mentors can be found via student organizations, career networking events, or as guest speakers on campus. During winter and spring break, regional alumni associations around the world often include students in programming like Cornell Cares Day, an international day of service. Students should proactively seek out these opportunities and take advantage of the alumni network whenever possible. Cornell parents and friends are certainly welcome to participate in the alumni associations and events as well.

Welcome to the Cornell family. You should feel proud to join this legacy. I encourage new students (and families) to learn about and explore this university that will play a major role in their lives. Cornell’s incredible past is unique from that of other institutions of higher learning. When it was founded as a coeducational, nonsectarian university for any person and any study, Cornell changed the face of collegiate education in the United States and in the world. Knowing about and appreciating this home away from home will make time spent here even more rewarding.


“I Would found an Institution,” The Ezra Cornell Bicentennial Exhibition:
Cornell Traditions:
Cornell: Glorious to View (chapter 1) by Carol Kammen:
Cornell University Alumni: