Kathie Jiang: 'I have faith in our collective capacity to love, persist and grow even in the face of a crisis'

Kathie Jiang​
History of Art & VISUAL STUDIES
San Diego, CA

Why did you choose Cornell?

Growing up in San Diego and attending an arts-centered high school, I still wonder how I was brave enough to leave everything behind and go to a large rural university in central New York. The reasons why I chose Cornell at age 17 seem very distant, even misguided to me today: I wanted to learn in a very different kind of place from where I grew up (for me that was the Northeast, a rural school, and an elite university), and I was drawn to a vague notion of elite universities and a liberal arts education where my major, art history, would fit into the broader fabric of the university. I realized a genuine education really looked like mentorships, finding communities, and seeking knowledge not for just yourself alone but for deepening your understanding of yourself and your place in the world and to history. Of course, this kind of education is not exclusive to an elite university like Cornell. Yet at Cornell, I have found it through the genuine and committed mentors, professors, friends, staff members, and so many more people that made my education what it was.

What are the most valuable skills you gained from your Arts & Sciences education?

While I have accrued a lot of information and facts in four years at Cornell, it was actually much more fundamental to return to questions of whether I know myself, the world, my place in the world, and my relationships to those around me (rootedness in place) and those that come before me (through history) and those that will come after me (the future of humanity) —before I could even set out to change the world. Along the way, I have also learned to keep an open mind; humility; generosity; and to connect with others wherever I go. I also spent a lot of time on my own at Cornell, whether it was traveling to New York by myself once a semester or attending an interesting lecture without a friend, so I would say spending time alone with kindness towards yourself, introspection, and a curiosity to learn without anyone else’s presence is actually an important skill and a lot harder than you’d think. When it comes to connecting with others, I was surprised at the beginning and end of the semester whenever I was saying my hellos and goodbyes to so many people I knew. Underneath all the friendships I have with others on campus is a fundamental desire to learn more about other people by asking the right questions to show your genuine curiosity about their lives, interests, dreams, etc., and then keeping up positive relationships through staying in touch verbally or virtually by reaching out to continue the conversation and saying hi when your paths cross again. In my academics, the most important skills I have learned are visual analysis, thinking critically, applying lessons of history and the social sciences, communication and collaborations across disciplines — but also recognizing positive leadership, seeking nurturing mentorships and finding solidarity between all learners.

What Cornell memory do you treasure the most?

I love certain feelings that have anchored many wonderful memories, like seeing the magnolia blossoms across from Olin after a long and hard winter, or returning home to my lovely housemates in my coop house, chilling on the fourth floor of Rockefeller Hall at the Asian American Studies Program Lounge and finding amazing books tucked away in the Africana Library. But I would say one kind of memory is my favorite: it is walking home with the people I have just shared an incredible moment after the success of an exciting Museum Club event, a heartfelt reading group discussion hosted by Asian Pacific Americans for Action [APAA] or a solid class from my favorite art history professor. Whether it’s a Museum Club member, an APAA friend, a classmate, a professor, or anyone, we’ll keep walking and talking together with equal parts excitement and fatigue and passion across Ho Plaza, East Avenue, the Arts Quad or the Thurston Bridge, to soak in the moment and all that we have learned or done just then, every second until we have to part ways.

Who or what influenced your Cornell education the most? How or why?

As Jimmy Boggs said, and we in APAA say very often, “It is only in relationship to other bodies, and many somebodies, that anybody is somebody." I like to say that Cornell is made up of not just seven colleges on a hill, but it is a complex community of people—and among them, my friends and mentors are the ones that have shaped my education the most. From my friends, to my professors, to my mentors at the Johnson Museum, and far beyond, there are too many people to name that have shaped my education the most. I would also say that Ithaca, where Cornell’s campus is located, has strongly shaped my education and growth, and I couldn’t be more proud to say that by the end of four years, I can call a small rural town in Central New York my second home.

How has your Cornell education and experience prepared you to deal with the challenges and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic?

Some experts and other Cornell grads right now are telling us, class of 2020, to ground ourselves in our Cornell degree and our network through Cornell, even when our graduation process has been torn from us and the job market is at a low, as a way to hold onto hope for our futures. Yet I would differ and say that actually turning toward what makes us all human, rather than special and unique, in the face of this pandemic is what helps me move beyond the paralyzing fear and anxiety that is so common in our reactions to the pandemic. Because our shared humanity is what unites and has always united us with a frontline healthcare worker, someone who has lost their job and/or a family member, or a facilities worker sanitizing and maintaining our essential services and spaces, Through this, I have faith in our collective capacity to love, persist, and grow even and especially in the face of a crisis. As I have reflected on my four years at Cornell, my swelling appreciation for what makes us human and what is so remarkable about humanity has grounded me and given me strength and optimism, in not only my future but also in our collective futurein ways that a Cornell degree alone, without this lesson, would not be able to.

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		 Kathie Jiang