Emily Dong: 'A liberal arts education teaches you to ask, why are we human?'

Emily Dong

Biology and Society and Asian American Studies

Acton, MA

What is your main extracurricular activity--why is it important to you?

Political organizing both on and off campus has been crucial to not only my political consciousness but also to my personal growth. It’s tempting for me to simplify my involvement in organizations such as The People’s School and Asian Pacific Americans for Action (APAA) as “activism.” On the outside, The People’s School is a really cool group that hosts pop-up education spaces where Ithaca community leaders and campus groups lead skills and knowledge workshops, where everyone can truly learn from anyone; APAA seems like a cool group of critical thinkers. But the root of why groups such as APAA have been so important to me and my growth is actually not the glittery action-side of activism but instead the reading and conversations we commit ourselves to. This commitment to reading and grappling with ideas together has critically allowed us to understand the overlooked question of what it means to be a human responsible for ourselves, the world, and the future — a question that I think we could all benefit from contemplating. Through these conversations where there inevitably are deep disagreements but also immense opportunities to expand our beliefs, I have found some of the most incredibly compassionate and brilliant friends.

What accomplishments/activities are you most proud of while at Cornell?

I’m most proud of my growth as a person while at Cornell. You enter college thinking you’re really smart and that you know everything. And then consistently throughout college, you are severely humbled by the amount you actually don’t know. It took me four years, but I’m infinitely grateful to have met mentors and friends who have challenged and humbled me. I’m most proud of how hard I have worked to become a more patient person who enters a space looking to listen and understand why others are saying what they are saying. It took me a long time to not come into a space with an agenda, believing that I’m going to “educate” others — even if you disagree with others, it’s a lot more fruitful to understand why others think the way they think. Too often people at Cornell think they know what they believe and cling to that, refusing to have the curiosity to listen and dig for the roots of how people with different views came to their conclusions.

What do you value about your liberal arts education?

A liberal arts education teaches you to ask “why are we human?” rather than simply state “we are human.” It teaches you to ask some of the most uncomfortable questions and critically see these questions and challenges as the long trajectory toward truth. A liberal arts education is the entry point into taking ideas seriously. And taking ideas seriously means understanding the significance of ideas informing action. Gaining comfort in asking questions and grappling with large ideas with large implications has also made me comfortable in accepting responsibility for myself, but also greater society. I like to think of this James Baldwin quote on responsibility: “But what should we do about the children? We are responsible; so far as we are responsible at all, our responsibility lies there, toward them. We have to assume that we are responsible for the future of this world.”

If you were to offer advice to an incoming first year student, what would you say?

Chill and be open to the ride. My friend Alice told me about a Buddhist saying that the best thing you can do is be an open cup, empty and ready to accept new ideas. Most people fall into the trap of being so busy trying to fill their cup with who knows what, just for the sake of not having an empty cup, that they grow defensive and incapable of accepting new ideas. College is like that — you come to Cornell eager to find what makes you special and accomplish large things, but if your mind and spirit are closed to new ideas, principles, people and opportunities, then you’ve doomed the immense growth a place like Cornell can humble you with.

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		 Emily Dong