Cornell’s Class of 2021 shines with stories of ingenuity, resilience

In a year defined in part by COVID-19, Cornell graduates charted their own course, showcasing creative ideas, perseverance, and a dedication to the broader community and to each other.


Designing innovative ways to safely socialize

While physical distancing is one of the key ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a group of students and recent alumni collaborated to make physical distancing more social for students on the Ithaca campus. With “Cornell: Safely Together,” an installation of log seats and freestanding seesaws, students were able to safely spend time together while enjoying the unique seating arrangements.

Cait McCarthy, M.Arch ’21, left, fabricates a Seat-Saw with Jordan Young, M.Arch ’21, in Rand Hall.

Jordan Young, M.Arch ’21, and Cait McCarthy, M.Arch ’21, designed the “Seat-Saw” installations for the project, which are curved, rocking seesaws with seats at either end, separated by six feet. While the Seat-Saws were intended to be used in a traditional seesaw fashion, with participants rocking back and forth on either end, McCarthy says that students also used the installations to lounge, nap, and have a meal on their own. While the designers may not have anticipated all of the new uses for the installation, it became a vital piece in maintaining a social campus during the pandemic.

“The most challenging aspect of this project was the sense of urgency to provide returning students with interactive and engaging spaces across campus,” Young says. “In an effort to implement our installation early in the semester, the design of the Seat-Saw pieces went through a series of rapid iterations as we worked to minimize material costs and fabrication time.”

Creating a virtual campus experience

During the unexpected class break in March 2020, Brandon Axelrod ’21, a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Jesse Potts ’21, a student in the College of Engineering, filled their spare time with Minecraft, a popular “sandbox” gaming series that allows players to build elaborate virtual worlds. They both had an interest in creating Cornell’s campus in Minecraft and they soon connected on Reddit, later recruiting a team of volunteers to help with the project.

“We wanted to bring people together, give people a chance to relive their experiences in Ithaca, [and] give everyone a meaningful project to participate with,” Axelrod says.

The iconic A.D. White statue and Arts Quad, as seen in Minecraft. Image provided.

The result is “CornellCraft,” a stunning virtual replica of Cornell’s Ithaca campus, which has attracted more than 1,000 builders and players from around the globe since its launch last year. Striving to replicate campus as accurately as possible, the team built everything on a 1:1 scale, including fine details such as greenery and trees, TCAT buses, the iconic A.D. White and Ezra Cornell statues on the Arts Quad, and the intricate details of historic Sage Hall. Axelrod and Potts are both graduating this spring, but they’re hopeful that the project will be self-sustaining, with Potts saying that the project will give students the chance to “always be connected to campus [and] connected to Cornell students.”

Planning a complex master schedule

In order to ensure a safe residential semester, Cornell needed to answer some vital questions: How can classroom spaces accommodate physical distancing requirements?

In solving the mathematical puzzle, Cornell turned to its School of Operations Research and Information Engineering, where faculty and students live and breathe mathematical modeling, optimization, and analysis for data-driven decision-making, and a team worked to create a dependable plan to keep its campus and community safe.

Students met for a socially distanced class in Milstein Hall in fall 2020.

After the team determined that physical distancing was feasible in classrooms, they recognized that course times and locations needed to be carefully assigned. The main challenge was that Cornell had perfected its schedule in an iterative manner, with many underlying assumptions baked in. But over time that reasoning was lost as the schedule carried over from one semester to the next.

Anders Wikum ’21, a student in the College of Engineering, was tasked with finding a way to extract as much of that historical judgement as possible from previous semesters. Wikum’s job was to “let the data speak” by finding annual trends in which students concurrently enrolled in two courses.

Collaborating on projects near and far

While students were studying in locations across the globe, they were still able to come together to create noteworthy projects, such as the Waterloo Art Center, a proposal to revive a historic building in Waterloo, New York. In fall 2020, the village of Waterloo asked Design Connect, a student-run community design organization, to design a concept for the Waterloo Art Center, and by the end of the semester, they had delivered.

This rendering of the proposed Waterloo Art Center shows the third floor, with open studios and an atrium. Image provided.

Their design proposal includes elements such as new window systems, insulation, a ground-floor exhibition space and bookstore, skylights, a roof deck, a portable stage, flexible studios, and ceramic and photograph studios.

This was the first time Grace Cheng, B.Arch ’21, had the chance to work on a renovation, and she led the team remotely from her home in Taipei, Taiwan. She says she found that focusing on the community was the most fulfilling aspect of the project, and understanding how the project would affect the economy and the culture were vital in creating the plans.

“A lot of the people who joined Design Connect wanted to have the experience of working with real clients and delivering a result that they are happy with,” she says. “At the end of the day, we’re serving them.”

Community Resilience

Promoting a culture of responsibility

In an effort to support the university’s public health campaign, hundreds of undergraduate students volunteered to serve as COVID-19 peer ambassadors, distributing personal protective equipment and modeling and promoting public health measures among their peers. Over the course of the year, students in the peer-based program distributed over 15,000 masks and 4,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, while also crafting hundreds of social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.

Moriah Adeghe ‘21

Moriah Adeghe ’21, a student in the College of Human Ecology, helped start the program. She says that the group who came together to initiate the efforts were anxious to see how they could get students to encourage one another to follow public health guidance, and that she was glad to be able to do her part in creating a successful year on campus.

“It definitely had a positive impact on my Cornell experience,” Adeghe says. “Knowing that I helped to encourage people to be mindful of their behavior during the pandemic was incredibly fulfilling.”

Coordinating a worst-case emergency plan

Joanna Papadakis ’21, a student in the College of Human Ecology, with a wealth of experience serving her community prior to her senior year, joined a team that was focused on developing a coordinated county worst-case emergency plan, in collaboration with the Tompkins County Health Department and Office of the Medical Examiner. While the project was emotionally charged, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Papadakis approached this essential work with a level of cultural competence and problem-solving.

Joanna Papadakis ‘21

Papadakis brought up key aspects of mental health support for family members, as well as conditions unique to Ithaca, such as a high number of international students, in conversations with the Red Cross about developing a family assistance center plan. Her work has been shared throughout the off-campus community, including with the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department. Papadakis was honored for her work with the 2021 Cornell Campus-Community Leadership Award, given annually to a graduating senior who has shown exceptional town-gown leadership and innovation.

“In my four years at Cornell, I have learned that serving those around you connects you to your community, but that it also teaches you about diverse life experiences, how to become passionate about issues that matter to you in the greater community, and how to develop strengths like empathy, listening, and advocacy skills,” Papadakis says.

Addressing community needs

A team of faculty and students have partnered with Mutual Aid Tompkins (MAT) to increase food security for local residents. Based on the philosophy of “neighbors supporting neighbors” to meet survival needs and strengthen community, MAT began placing outdoor food-sharing cabinets throughout Tompkins County and the surrounding area in spring 2020. Today, there are more than 50 food cabinets stocked with food and other essentials.

Brianna Johnson ‘21

The research team takes and analyzes photographs to understand and improve the flow of food into and out of the cabinets. Their work also assesses the barriers people face when using the resources. This community work is particularly meaningful to Brianna Johnson ’21, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, who appreciates the opportunity to serve others.

“At Cornell, I have explored community resilience, food insecurity, and mutual aid through my coursework, but this project has given me the opportunity to engage firsthand with these themes and witness the incredible successes, as well as the ongoing opportunities, of an inspiring organization like MAT,” Johnson says.

Creating environmental solutions

Acting locally and thinking globally can have a large impact — something Alice Soewito ’21, a student in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, knows well. Recently honored with the 2021 John F. Kennedy Memorial Award, which encourages students to enter into public service careers, Soewito has a strong interest in working on the global environmental crisis.

Alice Soewito ‘21

Soewito is particularly interested in the implementation of climate policies via extension and outreach programs, including those of Cornell Cooperative Extension. As a student, she worked with the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture to build climate smart agricultural tools and, as a study abroad student, traveled to Tanzania and Seychelles, where she worked on conservation-focused extension and outreach programs.

After graduating, Soewito hopes to establish an extension program in Indonesia to develop effective solutions for freshwater management. Ultimately, she hopes to act as a liaison, assisting in bridging the gap between science and policy, and policy and communities, by working with governments and local communities to create environmental solutions.

“Coming to Cornell, I thought ‘… any person … any study’ was simply an academic pursuit and intellectual challenge,” Soewito says. “However, after doing research and extension work with all kinds of organizations, I grew to see how Cornell really embodies its mission into tangible actions. The environmental public service I have embarked on — whether in Zambia, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, or the U.S. — has really inspired me to study and work hard to do good for the rest of the world.”

Impacting global democracy

Renelle Mensah ’21, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, views her work through a global lens. Mensah was recently named a Pickering Fellow by the U.S. Department of State, which will provide funding for a two-year graduate education, two summer internships and mentoring from a Foreign Service officer. After completing their master’s degrees, fellows are placed in Washington, D.C., or at a U.S. embassy, consulate, or diplomatic mission around the globe and agree to serve at least five years in the Foreign Service.

Renelle Mensah ‘21

“I’m interested in youth and female empowerment, along with efforts for democratic reform, and there are many ways that the State Department helps with the transfer of knowledge,” Mensah said. “We can help activists build coalitions and help them communicate with their local governments. As a citizen of the world’s longest-running democracy, I want to help in transferring that knowledge to other countries.”

Mensah dreams of a long career in the Foreign Service, and she looks forward to using her knowledge of cultures to travel and make a difference in global democracy. While she hasn’t traveled much yet, she looks forward to serving abroad and becoming a “global difference maker.”

Learning. Discovery. Engagement.