Last semester, senior year. It’s a joyous, sentimental time for counting memories and making a few new ones before moving on. Grace Traore ’20 blogged about her ILR and Cornell experiences in the weeks leading up to her final days as an undergraduate.
Grace Traore ’20 shares her adventure from Brooklyn to Libe Slope, Beebe Lake, Europe and beyond
ILRie By Coincidence
I’m here by coincidence. I’m here because I happened to check the yes box, happened to read my college mail – for once.
My senior fall at LaGuardia Arts High School was full of performances. With classes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., combined with extracurriculars, such as the step team and the Lincoln-Douglas debate team, and late night rehearsals, I couldn’t bring myself to read mail when arriving home after midnight.
But, I remember the day ILR’s viewbook found itself on the front porch of my family’s apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, commonly known as “Bedstuy,” in Brooklyn. Seeing as the mailing was in English, my French-speaking parents waited for me to open it. The booklet asked all the right questions: “Are you interested in law? Would you like to work for the U.S. government? Do you like to read and write?” All questions to which I answered ‘of course’. After a little research, Cornell’s vibrant chorus, dance and a cappella communities gave me confidence that my love for the arts would happily coexist with my pre-law path.
Just like that, Cornell went from not being on my college list to being my first choice. But, how would I afford to go here? That’s where the second coincidence comes in. I filled out the application and came across the question asking “would you like to be considered for the opportunity programs at your schools?” I checked “yes” without even researching what that meant.
I figured that the word “opportunity” would only bring about positivity and access to education. Turns out that the Arthur O. Eve Educational Opportunity Program would not only give me economic and academic support, but provide me with a family of close friends and advisers.
With that said, I couldn’t be happier to be here. ILR has combined my passions for writing, research, debate/argumentation, social justice, international relations and law. I’ve met great people within the school and gotten to experience the feel of a small school within a larger university.
Being an ILRie has broadened my perspective on labor relations and enhanced the way I think and interact with my peers and co-workers. ILR advisers have facilitated my professional development and ILR alums have been eager to help me prepare for the next phase of my life. The final three months of undergrad have taken unexpected turns, the largest of which is COVID-19. Reflecting on my ILRie journey has been a helpful coping mechanism during these unanticipated times.
I first saw Cornell’s campus when I visited in the spring of 2016. The day was cloudy, but didn’t stop me from falling in love with the beauty of the campus.
I figured that this just happened to be a cloudy day, and that spring semester weather was usually sunny.
Well, sometimes you’ve got to learn the hard way. I suppose I shouldn’t expect anything less from a school in upstate New York. Besides, having such little access to vitamin D means more orange juice for me.
Living in limbo between spring and winter has led me to adapt to a set of truisms during a period I’ve come to call spring-ter.
Spring-ter is not seeing the sun for weeks at a time
Spring-ter is falling on ice in your driveway in March
Spring-ter is when the sun, 60-degree weather, snow and leafless trees co-exist
Spring-ter is experiencing sunny, rainy and snowy weather all within the same day
Spring-ter is a snowy winter wonderland in April
How does one live like this?!
Check the weather, do not trust the sun to determine the temperature outside.
Have strong winter boots that can help you maintain your balance when walking uphill on ice.
Walk to class so your body warms up going uphill.
Walk particularly on the coldest days because everyone will want to take the bus and you might not get on before it reaches capacity---you’ll end up cold and late to class.
Finally, the most important tip of all is to drink a lot of OJ, courtesy of Cornell’s dining halls.
That ought to help. Plus, who knows? Maybe you’ll experience true spring by mid-April.
I was one of three people to get off the bus at Baker Flagpole.
As the bus slowly drove off, I noticed Libe Slope, the steepest slope I had ever seen. Seeing the slope for the first time was overwhelming; the bus had blocked my view of it and I had failed to see its grandeur through the shaded bus windows. I couldn’t believe Cornell wanted me to go up a mountain with my suitcase. I was cold, alone, confused and panicking. I decided to call the summer program help hotline. Vanessa Lillard from the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives picked up the phone.
Ms. Vanessa is my campus mom.
She was the first person I spoke to when I got off the bus that summer. She also talked me through my document submission for financial aid when I missed the deadline for freshman year. My hectic senior year of high school made it difficult to keep on track with the New York state financial aid application deadlines, ILR’s financial aid document submission deadline and the deadline to submit documents for my separate scholarship program. Ms. Vanessa called to let me know that I missed the deadline and followed up with me every day for a week to make sure I submitted all necessary documents.
After getting my financial documents in, I was notified that my scholarship was contingent on my completion of the on-campus Pre-freshman Summer Program. Seeing as the program was beginning a few days before my high school graduation, I was bound to arrive late.
Getting to campus for the program was a struggle. I left New York City for Ithaca the day of my high school graduation and arrived on campus at 3 a.m. To my surprise, Ms. Lillard picked up the phone. She was part of Cornell staff directing students arriving late. She relieved me first by telling me I wouldn't have to climb the slope.
Our phone conversation centered around Black hair. It’s one of the most memorable phone conversations I’ve ever had. I told Ms. Vanessa that I was cold and alone in unfamiliar territory and her idea to change the topic of conversation to hair, was the perfect distraction. I told her that I was wearing my hair in side-parted cornrows (braids). She was interested in learning more because she had maintained a short haircut for some time. She asked me about African hairstyles, something I was happy to discuss as my mom had previously owned an African hair-braiding salon. She stayed on the phone with me until the on-call residential assistant came to meet me.
Since then, Ms. Lillard has been present for my entire summer program experience, my induction into the national honor society for students in educational equity and scholar programs (Chi Alpha Epsilon), my experience as president of Cornell’s Zeta Upsilon chapter of that honor society and my time spent in the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives. She has always greeted me with a warm hug.
She has consistently checked in with me about my academics, self-care regimen, career goals and other involvements on and off campus. She even checked in with me while I was abroad to make sure I was doing well and asked for more information when I got back to campus.
Vanessa Lillard has served as associate director of the Pre-freshman Summer Program Student Services and assistant director of Cornell’s New York State Opportunity Programs. She is currently the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives special projects coordinator. Her different roles have led her to be more than a mentor to me. Her presence throughout my four years on campus has made me feel at home. She is retiring this year after 10 years at Cornell and I will miss her dearly. I am, however, comforted by the thought that we’ll be leaving Cornell at the same time. I started my Cornell career with her, and I am grateful to be ending it with her.
The Cornell Bucket List
Virtually every Cornell first-year student hears about the “Cornell Daily Sun” bucket list during their first semester on campus. There are 161 items on the list of “to dos.” If 161 things seem like a lot to do in four years, that’s because it is. In my four years on campus, I haven’t met a Cornellian who has completed all the recommendations. That isn’t surprising, considering number 73 on the list is:
“Following the legend, watch a virgin cross the Arts Quad at midnight and watch A.D. White and Ezra Cornell walk toward each other and shake hands.”
I’ve unintentionally completed 30-plus things on the list - I had no desire of crossing them off my non-existent personal Cornell bucket list.
But, I must admit that canoeing on Beebe Lake and participating in a Cornell Outdoor Education ropes course were truly highlights of my time at Cornell.
Other honorable mentions of things I’ve done include:
- Go on a wine tour
- Learn the “Alma Mater,” “Evening Song” and “Give My Regards to Davy”
- Have dinner at a professor’s house
- Hand out quartercards on Ho Plaza
- See a film at Cornell Cinema
Unfortunately, having to leave campus in the middle of my senior spring semester means that I wasn’t able to scramble in getting several things crossed off the bucket list during the final weeks of the semester. Being surrounded by the flat concrete of New York City since March 18 has led me to miss Cornell’s campus more than I ever thought I would -- from the waterfalls and sunsets on the slope to the Africana library and the Latino Studies lounge in Rockefeller Hall.
Seeing as a few weeks wouldn’t have been enough time to do the remaining 130 things on the list, I had to cut the list down:
- Order ice cream at the Dairy Bar
- Listen to a full chimes concert from the clock tower and guess the songs played
- Go bowling at Helen Newman Lanes
- Take part in Holi and get colorful
- Climb all 161 steps to the top of McGraw Tower
- Go to the Fuertes Observatory on North Campus and look through a telescope
- Take Plant Pathology 2010: Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds
- Wear flip-flops to class in January
- Attend an opening at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
- Take a selfie with a Cornell president
In regard to number 10, the logistics for the May 2020 graduation weekend are a little fuzzy, so we’ll see if I actually get a selfie with Martha - for the Cornellians who aren’t on a first-name basis with our beloved university president, I mean Martha Pollack.
I plan to do the other things on my list during my return to campus for Cornell’s 2021 Reunion. My membership in the Cornell University Chorus means I get to sing with Cornellians of all ages during every annual reunion weekend. Returning to campus to sing, reminisce and do things done by so many Cornellians before me is going to be emotional and amazing.
One thing’s for sure, as soon as I get back to campus, I will be singing in Sage Chapel. I will hopefully get to serenade my parents in the chapel as they’ve never been able to come to my singing concerts at Cornell. It’ll be nice to combine my love for singing, especially to my parents, with my Catholic faith. Seeing as they plan to help me move out of my on-campus apartment, that serenade might be coming sooner than you think.
Grace performing a solo with the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers at the group's annual holiday concert in the fall of 2018.
Grace visited Sage Chapel a few days before campus closed in March.
"One thing’s for sure, as soon as I get back to campus, I will be singing in Sage Chapel. I will hopefully get to serenade my parents in the chapel as they’ve never been able to come to my singing concerts at Cornell."
If I could be born in any place at any time in history, I’d be born in Spain during the 1980s. I’d get to grow up in my favorite country (besides my home country of Burkina Faso) during my favorite fashion decade (1990s). What more could a girl want?
I’ve wanted to study in Spain since high school. I’ve been planning my semester abroad since my sophomore fall at Cornell and decided to go during my senior fall.
I went with Syracuse University and was the only Cornellian in the Madrid program. I had imagined a program of around 30 students, mostly coming from different schools who would “conquer Europe together.” My heart skipped a beat upon realizing that this program consisted of 97 students, mostly from Syracuse, who traveled in cliques. I typically love surprises, but this one was tough to take.
Being without friends in a foreign country was not ideal. But, I found true comfort in the most unexpected people — my teachers, advisers, co-workers and host-mom. The two friends I managed to make in the program taught me the value of being unapologetically myself as we laughed and cried our way through the semester. We travelled to different destinations, recognizing that cultural immersion could cure our homesickness.
Besides visiting eight Spanish cities (Toledo, Cordoba, Malaga, Granada, Sevilla, Segovia, Barcelona and Madrid), I also travelled to Austria, the Netherlands, France and Morocco. Seeing those different cultures from the Spanish, U.S. and Burkina Faso lens was particularly interesting. I visited beautiful monuments with an emphasis on the churches, mosques and temples of southern Spain. As a Catholic, it was an honor to study and witness the history of Catholicism in Spain.
The Catedral Primada in Toledo was special for me. It was the largest cathedral I had ever seen, but it still felt like home. The Medina Azahara castle in Cordoba was previously buried and recently rediscovered; it was a pleasure to see the portions that were excavated and restored. The Alhambra palace in Granada is considered a wonder of the world; it was breathtaking to see and enter it.
Besides visiting monuments, I took a flamenco dance class, learned to cook four Spanish specialties, including paella and tortilla de patata, visited the Real Madrid fútbol stadium and attended an Afro-Spanish fair.
I spent most of undergrad dreaming about going to Spain and much of my senior year reminiscing about my time there. I’m thankful to have gone and wouldn’t change the experience — especially the surprises — for anything.
Singing and Dancing
My entire family constantly fights over who the best dancer is — it’s clearly me. I’ve been showing off at family parties since I was a toddler. But, there’s no argument when it comes to singing; my siblings can’t out-sing me, even on a bad day.
I sing almost as much as I talk — and I talk a lot. I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember and sing in my head whenever I get a break from the thoughts in my stream of consciousness. So, I never expected to choose dance class over chorus during my last year of middle school.
My school’s dance teacher told me:
“You look like you were born to dance.”
I suppose I agreed with her as between fifth and seventh grades, I danced a year with Purelements Dance Company studying modern, jazz and African dance, and took two years of dance class in school.
But, I sing every chance I get, in the shower, in the car, and in echoing spaces such as stairwells. Giving that up completely felt out of the question — dance or no dance. I wound up prioritizing singing over dance in high school as I focused on vocal music. That was the peak of my inner tug of war between dance and song.
Once I got to Cornell, I decided to make time for both singing and dancing. Since the start of my time at Cornell, I’ve been in African Dance Repertoire, the Key Elements A Cappella Group, the Cornell University Chorus, the Cornell University Chamber Singers, and the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers.
Ten-plus hours of rehearsal a week combined with Cornell’s academic workload can be brutal. So, I’ve taken time off from singing and dancing groups as needed during the last four years, but have always remained in at least one performance group.
Upon entering my last semester of undergrad, I decided to focus on three of the five groups: African Dance Repertoire, the chamber singers and the Dorothy Cotton Singers.
The chamber singers perform music I sang in my high school choirs and, therefore, has a nostalgic ring to it. We’re a co-ed group that produces a mostly classical/chant-like sound with a focus on early and contemporary choral music. The group is filled with experienced musicians hand-picked by conductor Stephen Spinelli for their unique talents and demonstrated passion for choral music. I was only in this group for two months, but managed to fall in love with its atmosphere and sound, not to mention that it strengthened my respect and love for conductor Spinelli.
The jubilee singers choir was named in honor of Dorothy Cotton, a civil rights activist. We’re a co-ed group that sings spirituals and gospel hymns as an homage to the musical tradition that resulted from chattell slavery. We produce a darker and heavier tone in most of our songs, but have solos that require an operatic tone or belting. The group is unique in that it is made up of local Ithacans, and Cornell and Ithaca College faculty, staff and students. Some members bring along their children and younger family members to practice, so that members range from age 2 to age 65-plus. I’ve been in the choir for two and a half semesters, but will remember it forever— there is an indescribable warmth that comes about when singing with grandparents.
The dance group performs dances choreographed to traditional or African pop songs. The group has allowed me to dance, keep in touch with my African roots and spend time with the Black community on campus. We’ve performed for important events on campus such as Afrik, a fashion show highlighting African designers on campus, and Africa Ball, a pageant celebrating all African countries represented on campus. I joined the group in my freshman fall and have had unique experiences with individual members of the team aside from vibrant memories of the group.
Being in the group has been an interesting experience because ...
- One of the group members has been my teaching assistant for my Introduction to Business Management class and another was one of my best friends during Cornell’s Pre-freshman Summer Program.
- One worked in the house office of my dorm, Carl Becker House, for two years, while another spent hours in Libe Cafe telling me her “boy troubles.”
- One used my phone to make all phone calls for a week because she lost her phone, while another lent me her crochet needle when I first started crocheting my own hair.
I suppose she “gave” me her crochet needle because she’s graduated and that needle still sits on my dresser. Knowing my teammates outside of African Dance Repertoire made the group feel like home.
I took two years off from the group for my mental health and academic success. When I returned for my final semester at Cornell, I witnessed the change in the group’s dynamic and met the new generation of dancers. Although I only did one performance with the new team before the campus shut down, I appreciated the feeling of returning home to my African Dance Repertoire family.
My heart previously struggled to pick between dance and song. Luckily, I no longer have to choose.
Fav prof! One of the few teachers who prioritized my learning over my grades. He is focused on making sure students learn. And acknowledges that learning is not always reflected in the grade. He is witty. And he is fun.
Most people will tell you that getting into law school is all “about the numbers,” your undergraduate grades and Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, scores. As a pre-law undergraduate, it wouldn’t be advisable for me to take a class from a professor known for “ruining your GPA.”
Well, ILR Associate Professor Michael Gold is known for destroying GPAs; he also happens to be my favorite professor from undergrad. For ILRies, his “Labor and Employment Law” course is particularly brutal with quiz averages between the 50s and 70s, and a term paper worth 50% of our final grade.
Don’t get me wrong, I cried my way through Gold’s labor law course. I was overwhelmed academically and emotionally during that semester and his course only made things worse. On the other hand, he is one of the few teachers who prioritized my learning over my grades. It was refreshing to see an Ivy League professor with a law degree from Stanford University suggest that learning was more important than the “numbers.”
His attitude and labor law course structure — unannounced quizzes, cold-calling on students for participation, his own personalized, compiled pamphlets as textbooks and a culminating term paper — showed his dedication to students’ learning. He stressed that the class was designed to give students their “money’s worth” as consumers paying tuition. He shared interesting anecdotes or folktales at the start of every lecture, making me chuckle or think broadly about the real-world implications of labor law.
I simultaneously had him for labor law and an advanced writing class on ethics. There were eight of us in the ethics class and most of our discussions took place in a semi-circle. That class increased my love for Professor Gold as we dived into the complex contemplative questions of life. It was a great opportunity to pick his brain on his answers to various ethical dilemmas, but he refused to give his personal opinion on anything. Figures. He felt that playing devil’s advocate would contribute more to our learning than advocating for his personal beliefs.
Professor Gold prioritized my learning in both classes I took with him. In accordance with that, he acknowledged that learning is not always reflected in the grade, a lesson I’ve finally come to terms with as a senior.
He is witty, fun and one of the best storytellers I know. His office hours were a time for his advice on my law career questions and my attempted explanations of my exam responses. I am picking his brain on job ideas for my gap year before law school. If anyone can help me find a legal job that involves speaking French, Spanish and English in the workplace, it has to be Michael Gold.
Oh, and his wife is African — as am I. His constant mention of her in lectures was intriguing for me as I could relate to some of her behaviors. Meeting her at some point is on my personal bucket list. We’ll see if I can convince him to make an introduction. I’m working on it.
A Forever Bond
Many say that Cornell is the easiest Ivy League university to get into and the hardest to graduate from. Students must deal with grade deflation, the new reality of no longer being “a big fish in a small pond” and a stressful competitive atmosphere.
That statement rang truest for me during my sophomore fall, when academic and emotional stress took a toll on my mental health. A large part of overcoming that semester was the thought of walking across the graduation stage on May 23, 2020.
President Pollack announced March 20 that an in-person Class of 2020 ceremony will take place. We don’t know when. I suppose it’s a good thing that I hadn’t already ordered my cap and gown.
The cap and gown symbolizes the climax of my four years in undergrad. Walking across the stage in front of my friends, teachers and family is meant to be the culmination of a tough and rewarding journey, and the beginning of my life as a self-sufficient adult.
Having sung at three Cornell commencements and convocations with the Cornell University Chorus and Glee Club, with little to no chance of singing at my own ceremonies is a hard pill to swallow.
I won’t be able to show my parents my favorite places on campus this week or celebrate my birthday, May 22, the day before I would have worn the cap and gown. I won’t have formal goodbyes with all my friends, particularly the ones I may never see again.
So, how have I found solace in my senior year being cut short?
I prioritized seeing friends before leaving campus. Seniors were truly the only ones who could fully relate to the mixed emotions I felt when receiving the first set of emails from Martha. I took walks to various parts of campus, trying to see its beauty as much as possible. I cried and allowed myself to slowly process the information. I called family members to calm my hysteria and made a plan to rejoin my parents in New York City.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that the true climax of my time at Cornell will be receiving my diploma in the mail. In the meantime, I’m keeping in contact with everyone who matters to me and have enjoyed my final classes, even though they’ve been virtual.
I love Cornell and will be back the first chance I get. This is not an end, it’s an opportunity to put the past four years into perspective. I’ve had an interesting time here that I will remember always, especially due to the unforeseen circumstances that hit my graduating class.
Cheers, Class of 2020, this situation has strengthened the bond we will forever share.