Cornell University Visit Report by noimagination
Campus Tour: Yes
Classroom Visit: Yes
Campus Visit Notes for Cornell University
I've rewritten this report a few times since November. It was a tough one for me because I had some very contradictory feelings about Cornell following my visit. This is a LONG description, so skip to the SUMMARY section at the end if you don't want to read it.
We drove into Ithaca from the Albany/Troy area on a Monday night. After checking in at the Statler Hotel - see Lodging section below - we got directions to a freshman dining hall and ate dinner there.
Cornell has a reputation for excellent food on-campus. This reputation was met and then exceeded. The food quality was superb and the selections vast. We ate in the Purcell center, which was very pleasant and comfortable on a rainy night. It was very crowded but handled the crowds well. However, there was one quirk: they ran out of glasses. We asked a student working there, and she led us around past all three different drink dispensing areas. Every single one was out of glasses. Eventually, she went back into the kitchen and brought us little plastic disposable drinking cups. This was a really strange issue - do most people use their own water bottles? - but I was impressed by the dedication of the student employee in solving the problem.
If you stay at the Statler, here's some good advice: you can avoid the overpriced hotel dining areas for breakfast and instead head to Mac's Cafe down in the basement of the connected hotel school building. They have bagels, breakfast sandwiches, fruit, etc. at lower prices than the hotel and the atmosphere is much more representative of campus. There are signs, but you can always ask a hotel employee for directions.
After breakfast, we walked up to Day Hall planning to catch a 9 AM tour. Upon arrival, we were told that in fact the tours were only at 1 PM. It turned out that the part of the website listing 9 AM tours was for that day NEXT YEAR. Three people had all read the website and missed that, so while their advance planning is admirable somebody might want to take a look at the page layout and consider making it a bit more clear. It was our bad, but I thought the staff in Day were a bit snippy about correcting us.
Given an unexpected 4 hours to kill, we wandered up to the admissions office on North Campus. It's a very pleasant short walk across the gorges and through some houses. The gorges are gorgeous. In admissions, we waited about ten minutes for the secretary/clerk at the desk, who was on a lengthy phone call with what sounded like a very insistent parent of an applicant. She eventually disengaged and explained that I could watch one of a few available classes.
I headed over to an intro-level engineering course. The instructor was friendly and had no problem with me sitting in the back and watching. They initially discussed the results of a design competition the previous week, and prizes (candy) were awarded. The instructor then covered some basic thermodynamics that we had recently studied in my AP Physics course, so I was able to follow along easily. The students were surprisingly unresponsive - it was like pulling teeth for the instructor to get people to respond to questions. That would never have been the case in my high school class, so I was surprised to see it here. However, it was the week before Thanksgiving break so I can understand how people might be a little bit preoccupied with things other than school.
After lunch, we took the normal campus tour covering the academic areas of campus. The tour guide was a very friendly guy. He talked a lot about campus myths and traditions. While I appreciate any effort to include humor in a college tour, it got kind of boring after a while. I got the feeling that most of our large tour group would have preferred a bit more content about student life now, not in the 1800s. We stopped by a classroom for a sit-down Q&A session. There was already a student in the room sitting at the front doing homework. He seemed completely oblivious to the tour group and continued to sit there - in the middle of the talking group - while the guide answered questions. It was awkward to walk in on this guy and interrupt his work.
The classroom was not the place I would have chosen to show off, either. It had those awkward little swing-up desk/chair hybrids from the 60s and a dirty blackboard. The whole building - perhaps the physics hall? - seemed very worn and in need of some work. This was a theme I felt a lot around campus - old buildings not brought up to speed with more modern conveniences. Campus felt historic, but historic in the sense of mold and disrepair. Compared to RPI and Northeastern earlier in the week, Cornell's facilities were sorely lacking.
By the end of the tour, I was wondering why we had bothered. I didn't learn anything of value and it was honestly very boring. I got the feeling that a lot of the other people felt the same way.
We waited to take the freshman experience tour in Willard Straight Hall, the student union. The weather may have played a role in this - it was windy and a little rainy - but the building was creepy, dark, and depressing. There were a number of students but not much in the way of good cheer. There are definitely other places to hang out on campus, but I couldn't even imagine wanting to spend leisure time in that place. At a minimum, they need some new lighting.
In stark contrast to the main campus tour, the freshman experience tour actually made Cornell seem like a nice place to live. The guide did a good job of pacing the tour. Our very small group walked up to North Campus and toured some dorms and a rec center. One dorm was a bit old but seemed lively, and the other was very new and pleasant. They didn't make arrangements in advance to see a room, but a couple of guys were willing to let us look in. The room was messy - they claimed to have been in the process of reorganizing - but seemed nice enough.
Walking around North Campus, people were friendly and I got a real sense of community that was lacking elsewhere at Cornell. This was true both the night before in the dining hall and on the tour. It was one of the nicest freshman housing complexes I've seen anywhere.
It's tough for me to sum up one single impression of Cornell. All of my time on North Campus was pleasant, energizing, and overall impressive. However, the academic areas were not nearly as desirable. The facilities did not match those at any other school I've visited. Duffield Hall was nice, but the other engineering buildings were overall lackluster and the facilities for CAS departments were worse.
I hate to end things on a negative note, but the tour and visit infrastructure needs even more work than the physical plant. At every other school I've visited, the tours have been well-orchestrated and designed to show off the school in the best possible light. Here, they seem to be resting on their Ivy League laurels. From the lack of content on the main campus tour to the lack of advance planning in selecting facilities to be toured to the bizarrely located admissions office, I did not feel welcomed. Even the otherwise excellent freshman experience tour was horribly timed at 3 PM long after the main campus tour ended. Maybe that's why most people didn't stick around for it, and that's a shame because I'd hate for their only impression of Cornell to be from the main tour.
Cornell is a great school, no doubt about it. But campus visits should welcome visitors, not treat them like cattle being led to slaughter. So, as much as I'd like to make this a positive review, when I see so many other schools - small and large, public and private - working so hard to give visitors a good experience I have to call it like I see it.
Hotel/Lodging Recommendations or Comments:
The Statler is nice and the staff (students) are very helpful. It's way overpriced but is certainly convenient. They loan good umbrellas.
Dining/Restaurant Recommendations or Comments:
The freshman dining halls and Mac's Cafe are very good. See description.