Once an ILRie, Always an ILRIE

Class of 2019 members shared memories as they graduated this weekend and Interim Dean Alex Colvin gave them a rousing sendoff: “You haven’t won a prize, you have earned an opportunity.”
2019 ILR Graduate
Sunday, May 26, 2019

Labor economics was a struggle, but ILR friends helped, Ashley Davila said at Cornell’s graduation Sunday.

“Consistent laughter through prelim prep and problem sets make it memorable and wonderful.”

Camaraderie among ILRies and support from faculty such as Assistant Professor Veronica Martínez-Matsuda were central to Davila’s Cornell years.

At ILR, Davila said, “You really do find your place with peopIe who lift you on your journey.”

Eric Bailey’s regalia included a gold satin honors stole.

He earned it after 18 months’ work on a thesis about precarious employment and conflict resolution.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done academically,” said Bailey, whose thesis adviser was Associate Professor Ariel Avgar.

Paul Russell was joined Sunday by two 2015 Cornell alums he met freshman year through Cru Cornell.

The three discussed life over lunch every week, and stayed in touch after Samuel Rabkin, a graduate of the School of Applied & Engineering Physics, became a public school teacher in New York, and Kelechi Umoga, a College of Human Ecology graduate, began medical school at Yale.

Professor William Sonnenstuhl, chatting with students on the Arts Quad as they assembled to march into Schoellkopf Stadium, said he would miss Class of 2019 members, Dustin Liu among them.

Liu, who has represented students on the Cornell Board of Trustees for the past two years, topped his regalia with 22 cords, one for each organization he has been involved in. A friend joked that Liu, one of Cornell’s most active students, left 10 cords at home.

Interim Dean Alex Colvin Ph.D. ’99 said graduation is a joyful experience for faculty. “We get to see students blossom through their experiences at Cornell.”

Graduation is also when all of ILR is united behind the same banner, regardless of whether one is more passionate about labor or about management. “We’re one ILR.”

At ILR’s degree ceremony in Bartels Hall on Saturday, Colvin said, “Navigate organizations, resolve conflicts, stand up for what is right, be a leader. Do the things that ILRies do well!

Read the full text of his speech:

Thank you all for coming today. Welcome to the graduation ceremony for students in ILR. I want to thank the many family and friends who have trekked from near and far to come here to recognize the students they have supported on their journeys at ILR. I want to thank our faculty and staff who have helped our students throughout their ILR education. But most important of all, I want to thank and congratulate our graduating students!

We are here today to celebrate their accomplishments, to recognize the degrees they have earned.

What is a degree? An achievement, certainly. One that is the product of a lot of hard work. When my colleagues and I look at the grades, resumes, and personal statements of our incoming students we are amazed at how impressive a group of students we are going to have the privilege of teaching. We often wonder if we would have been admitted to ILR if we had to compete with you. But then you arrive here on campus and remove all doubt – I and my Gen X compatriots really were a bunch of slackers compared to you. Prepped by mastering great piles of AP courses, you proceed to terrify your advisors with your credit-laden course schedules. Being ILRies, you run for and win campus leadership positions. You don’t just join clubs, you lead them, and create new ones. You start entrepreneurial businesses. You launch social justice movements. You make us proud and also a little tired watching all of the things that you do. And you work hard in class. You read, you write, you learn statistics, you master supply-demand diagrams, you learn to research and analyze legal problems. You show the amazing all-round achievements that ILRies are known for.

And let’s recognize the wonderful achievements of our graduate students. Masters students who have developed expertise across the broad range of labor relations and human resource management. Doctoral students who are the emerging scholars providing new research insights on topics that we had only begun to think about. Whatever the degree you earn today, you are an ILRie whose accomplishments we are immensely proud of. 

Something that has always bothered me is when some people ascribe academic success just to natural talent. That you could succeed at a place like Cornell just by being really smart. And you are really smart! But being smart isn’t enough to succeed in college and you’ll find it isn’t enough to get what you really want out of life. Work isn’t just something we study at ILR, hard work is what we put into succeeding. So now, when you have gotten to the end of your college degree, don’t forget the hours in the library, the puzzling over econ homework assignments and stats problem sets. Don’t forget the nervous studying before tests, the panic of the last minute hustling to get an assignment done, the slogging through a term paper. As you graduate, know that you have earned this achievement through your hard work and be proud of it.

But also remember that this is not an achievement that you could have done on your own. One of my favorite assignments I give to new students in my colloquium sections is to write something I call the “Three People” paper. In it I ask the students to describe the work experiences of three members of their family – if possible from three different generations – a grandparent, a parent, a sibling. I ask the students to reflect on how work has changed over time. How did education make a difference? What was the impact of emigrating to a different country? How have careers changed and the type of workplaces we work in? But the most striking thing to read in these essays is how each generation stands on the shoulders of the one that came before it. The grandparents who moved to a new country where they didn’t speak the language to provide new opportunities for their children. The parents working long hours so their daughter or son could be the first in the family to go to college. You have achieved much through your hard work, but honor the hard work of those who helped get you here. Graduating students, please join me in giving a round of applause to the family, friends, and mentors who helped you get to where you are today and are here to celebrate your success.

I have talked about how your degree is an achievement. In our meritocratic society that is sometimes mistakenly confused with treating a college education as a prize to be won. You get good grades, a high SAT or ACT score, build the right resume, get into the right college, pass your courses and you win the prize of a college degree. But I want to argue that is the wrong way to think about what you have achieved through your college education. You haven’t won a prize, you have earned an opportunity. Your education at ILR has provided you with the tools to do things in life that most others are not given. You are going out into the work world and on to further study with skills that will allow you to solve problems and resolve conflicts, perspectives that will allow you see beyond your own experiences and understand the interests and hopes of others, critical thinking skills that will allow you to bring new insights to tough issues. These are the skills and insights that you have learned through your ILR education, but they are ones you need to apply to make them have an impact.

Having earned a degree from Cornell will open doors for you. You will have opportunities that are rare and valuable and you should cherish that. But know that once you walk through those doors, you will have to continue to show that you can realize your promise. This is where you will have the chance to employ that ILR education you have worked so hard for. Show that you can analyze the complex situations. Bring together and apply your reading, writing, and analytical skills. Navigate organizations, resolve conflicts, stand up for what is right, be a leader. Do the things that ILRies do well!

We live in uncertain times, a time when, to paraphrase the great Lin-Manuel Miranda, “Oceans Rise” and “Empires Fall.” President Pollock likes to talk about this being the VUCA world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. At ILR we wonder what the future of work will be like. But we approach that future not with fear and trepidation, but with curiosity and determination. A determination to be at the forefront of shaping that future, to transform the world of work.

There is a quote that I often think about. Having being a nerdy, teenager in the 1980s, who played way too much Dungeons and Dragons, it is naturally a quote from the great J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Yes, we’re going with a Gandalf quote here. In response to young Frodo’s fears about living in a time of turmoil and uncertainty, where Frodo says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”, Gandalf replies, “So do I ... and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” This is a line written by a writer who after graduating from Oxford University served his country in the horrors of trench warfare in the First World War, but survived and went on to write one of the most beloved books of the 20th century. I hope you do not have to experience times such as that. But I do hope that you have that spirit of valuing the time that is given to you. Be brave, be purposeful, be kind, be honorable. Build a career, build something worthwhile. Take advantage of the opportunities that your ILR education has given you.

Be proud of who you are as we congratulate you – the Cornell ILR Class of 2019!

I want to close by again thanking the friends, family, faculty, and staff who are here to celebrate with our students. To our students, thank you for spending such an important part of your lives with us. But do not think this means you are getting away. Once you are an ILRie, you are always an ILRie. Keep in touch, come visit. You are part of a lifelong community and we will look on with pride at your accomplishments and celebrate them with you. Congratulations and well done!