The course I took in biophysics was, at the time, way outside my comfort zone, as I had only taken high school biology—but it transformed my life.

Although I graduated from Cornell decades ago, I have remained connected to my alma mater in many ways over the years. I am also a proud Cornell parent. As such, the perspective I would like to offer is that of an alumnus and parent.

When I arrived on the Cornell campus in 1973, I surely felt I was going to major in aerospace engineering. Having grown up in the 1960s, I was captivated by the exploration of space and the phenomenal achievement of landing a man on the moon. However, over the next three years I became interested in materials science, applied physics, polymer chemistry, and economics. In contrast to my early aspiration, I ended up majoring in electrical engineering, doing research in biophysics, and then going to medical school. Today I am a urologist and have a practice in New York’s Chinatown.

With that experience in mind, the first piece of advice I can offer is to avoid asking your son or daughter what he or she is going to major in—because, in all likelihood, it will change many times. With seven undergraduate schools and colleges as well as thousands of courses of study to choose from, Cornell students are exposed to a rich and extremely diverse learning environment befitting one of the world’s best research universities.

One of the most distinctive aspects of a Cornell education is the opportunity for students to be exposed to so many domains of inquiry and disciplines of study. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of interdisciplinary research. Students learn the importance and power of developing collaborations when trying to find novel solutions to problems. Cornell faculty members are extraordinarily passionate about teaching and research, so they welcome self-motivated students to participate and learn how new knowledge is created. Every student at Cornell has the opportunity to be inspired and mentored by a faculty member. For many, as was the case for me, this is in an invaluable experience.

My next piece of advice is to encourage your student to take some risk in his or her course of study and challenge himself or herself academically. The course I took in biophysics was, at the time, way outside my comfort zone, as I had only taken high school biology— but it transformed my life. I enjoyed the course so much I spent two years working in a biophysics laboratory and was encouraged by my professor to think about a career in medicine.

It transformed my life.

For some students, the size of the Cornell campus can be somewhat overwhelming. With thousands of acres of land and more than 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students, navigating this living and learning environment can be a daunting challenge. Another thought to consider is how you can make a large university community seem smaller. All first-year students have a common shared living experience on North Campus. In subsequent years, Cornell gives students the freedom to choose to live in smaller groups, off-campus housing, the Greek system of fraternities and sororities, or one of the residential houses on West Campus. Regarding the enormous size of the campus and how best to get around, I can only say that during my time on campus I had a bicycle. I found the challenges of getting to early morning classes in the cold Ithaca winters part of the character building aspect of a Cornell education.

Engineering students test the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle in Teagle Hall's swimming pool.

It is my strong belief that what students choose to do in their free time at Cornell will help shape their future. Beyond the classroom there are so many extracurricular opportunities for students to explore. There are nearly 1,000 student organizations and clubs. The campus is full of student-initiated activity that pursues passions in athletics, music, dance, writing, community service, and the building of award-winning autonomous submersible vehicles—to name a few. The diversity of student interest is tremendous, and each student organization helps to educate, inform, and enrich the entire community. Participation in extracurricular activities enables students to interact in smaller groups, develop friendships, test leadership and organizational skills, and allows for a more fulfilling student life experience. This is not to suggest that all Cornell students should not strive for a balance in their lives, which would include time for sleep, good nutrition, and exercise.

The academic program at Cornell has not changed since I was a student. It is still very rigorous and extremely challenging. This can create a fairly stressful environment for students. That said, I would recommend not asking your son or daughter about his or her grades. Admission to Cornell is validation of your student’s intellectual capabilities, and as we all know, course grades are not necessarily a reflection of what has been learned. A wonderful aspect of a Cornell education is the chance to explore, find challenges, engage passionately in activities, and interact with a diverse student body and faculty. To be completely focused on grades may constrain opportunities to grow. If your student wants you to know about grades, he or she will tell you. Cornell has a host of resources, including academic advising, peer and professional counseling, and career placement services—to which students have free access. Much of this book is devoted to helping families understand the many resources available to students who are experiencing difficulties with their transition to life at Cornell.

The phrase that is often used when describing the Cornell experience is “freedom with responsibility.” Students are allowed wide latitude to choose what kind of living environment works best for them as well as the curriculum of study that is best suited to their interests. This freedom of choice comes with the understanding that students have to be responsible for their decisions and be active participants in the living and learning community.