Choosing the wrong college

posted: April 9, 2022

tl;dr: I did not choose the absolute best college to attend, but it doesn’t much matter...

The odds that any student applying to college is going to choose the absolute most perfect place to attend are vanishingly small. I realized this after I graduated from Cornell.

After the graduation ceremony, a college buddy and I embarked upon a nearly three month cross-country motorcycle trip. We slowly made our way from the northeast United States to California, which was approximately the halfway point in both time and distance traveled. It was the first time I had ever spent any significant time in California, so it was my first time experiencing the spectacular mountain, coastal, and desert scenery, as well as the pleasant climate. We took Pacific Coast Highway-1 north up the coast from Malibu to Monterey Bay, which is widely regarded as the most scenic stretch of highway in the country, famous for its vistas and fun, challenging curves. From Santa Cruz we headed north through the coastal mountains into Silicon Valley.

On our way to San Francisco we decided to stop by Stanford University in Palo Alto, just to see the campus. Many people don’t realize it, but there is a special kinship between Cornell and Stanford, which were each founded in the latter half of the 1800s, with Cornell being established first. As described in the Wikipedia entry for Stanford, and well known to me and my buddy at the time, some important people from Cornell were instrumental in getting Stanford up and running. In the structure of its various colleges and school policies, Stanford was very much modeled after Cornell. The Wikipedia entry mentions that Stanford was called the “Cornell of the West”, although we Cornellians somewhat derisively called it “Cornell West”. But even in the 1980s, because Stanford stood alone on the west coast as a premier world-class university, whereas Cornell operated in the Ivy League alongside seven other premier institutions plus M.I.T., it’s fair to say that Stanford was a bit more well-known than its progenitor institution. It also had the advantage of being located in a major population center, the lack thereof being the main reason that Cornell never spawned a similar technology hub.

An expansive green lawn with paved paths and mature trees, with a large two story academic building in the background, with a statue in front of it

Cornell’s Arts Quad

It was a perfect sunny day, without a cloud in the sky, as we rode our motorcycles onto the Stanford campus. I remember winding our way past some dorms which had a beach volleyball court out front. There must have been a summer session underway, as there were some coeds playing volleyball in the sand, clad in nothing but swimsuits. This was a sight that I had never seen in cold, rainy, snowy Ithaca, New York.

As it turns out, it was also alumni reunion weekend. We made our way to the main Stanford quad, which is a beautiful example of Spanish colonial architecture. We parked our motorcycles, which were covered in more than a month’s worth of road grime and dirt. We weren’t much cleaner; it had probably been days since we had taken a shower or shaved. Clad in our leathers, we wandered onto the quad, where we saw waiters in white tuxedo jackets setting up for the reunion festivities. One waiter had built a tower of champagne glasses, and was pouring champagne into the glass at the pinnacle, where it overflowed onto the glasses below, eventually filling up the lower elevation glasses.

It was then that my buddy and I turned to each other and said: “We went to the wrong university. We should have gone to Cornell West instead of Cornell.”

Stanford and California looked pretty attractive to a couple of northeasterners who had never before seen either place. Because we were northeasterners, we had not even considered traveling to the other side of the country to attend college. Cornell and Stanford were roughly equivalent in price, back then and even now, so we could have afforded it then. It just never entered my mind to apply there.

Who knows how my life would have turned out if we had gone to Cornell West instead of Cornell? There’s a good chance I would have gotten involved in the Silicon Valley tech scene. I actually turned down an internship job offer from a Silicon Valley company, National Semiconductor, when I was a junior at Cornell, because I preferred to stay on the east coast.

In the end, we live with the choices we make. I am happy to have attended Cornell. As I like to say, you get out of college what you put into it. I tell prospective students that they are highly unlikely to choose and get into the absolute best college for themselves, but it doesn’t much matter. You can work hard and learn things wherever you go.

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