'Hard choices are what make life meaningful'

Willow Martin

Little Silver, N.J.

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

A&S does a wonderful job of ensuring that students are exposed to a variety of subjects, but sometimes the path forward splits into an overwhelming number of branches. I have often found myself agonizing over the ethical implications of every class I consider taking, in hopes that I will come to some epiphany that makes my choice obvious. This recurring feature of my undergraduate career taught me how to process doubt without spiraling into anxiety. I’ve come to learn that hard choices are what make life meaningful; these are the moments that empower me to create the person I aspire to be. They are not something to be dreaded but embraced. Unabashedly chasing after my interests reinvigorated my sense of personal agency; I have the will to prioritize what I feel to be most important. 

woman looking out over lake

What was your favorite class and why?

My favorite course was probably Zen Buddhism: Ecology, Sustainability and Daily Life with Professor Jane-Marie Law. Beyond memorizing information, she pushed us to tease out questions from her lectures and prompted us to bring them to bear on our personal experiences. The class provided space to integrate everything I've learned at this school before moving on to the next chapter in my life; I finally feel the whirlwind experience of my undergraduate years settling into a narrative that I can understand without feeling imprisoned by. I don’t need to abandon my multifaceted sense of purpose or retreat from the world in order to become a serious physicist. Her explanations of the history, practice and precepts of Zen Buddhism inspire me to appreciate how complexly my life interconnects with others’. In fact, earlier this semester, Professor Law inspired some of my classmates and I to organize a teach-in to educate the student body about the ongoing war in Ukraine. I am so grateful this will be my final lecture as a graduating senior.

What have you accomplished as a Cornell student that you are most proud of?

woman picking apples

I planned to volunteer at Asian University for Women in Chittagong, Bangladesh during the summer after sophomore year, but the pandemic prevented me from volunteering. I wanted to find alternative ways to support AUW, so I founded a club called Women's Higher Education Now (or WHEN, for short), which advocates for the equal participation of all women in higher education. Our activities this year were characterized by an unexpected crisis as the Taliban launched a lightning offense and swept through Afghanistan — the AUW students from Afghanistan were evacuated to McCoy Air Force Base in Wisconsin. Once they were in the U.S., I began collaborating with Professor Timothy DeVoogd and members of Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies to formulate a program that would allow the students to remain in the U.S. — the Afghanistan Initiative. We now host nine AUW students here in Ithaca, and it has been a privilege getting to know these extraordinary women.

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

The days, weeks and months will sometimes feel unbearably long, but in retrospect, this time flies by. Don’t wish any of this time away; the struggle makes moments of sunshine all the more sweet, and when it feels like you’ve taken on too much to bear, don’t be afraid to pause, even restructure your life. Use your years wisely; try to focus on nurturing the person you want to become, not just obtaining the grades you want to display. You will leave this university with a tremendous amount of power, but in order to use that power responsibly, you need to lead a life that allows time for introspection and compassion. 


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