May 29, 2005

Commencement 2005: Cell phones, cameras, congratulations, challenges and a princess

ITHACA, N.Y. -- Perfect weather -- temperatures in the 60s, the lightest of breezes and blue skies with postcard-perfect clouds -- graced Cornell University's 137th Commencement May 29, as about 5,600 graduates assembled on the Arts Quad for the academic procession to Schoellkopf Stadium. The climate added a casual, relaxed air to the morning, as Cornell seniors and graduate students posed for innumerable photos, taken by parents, relatives, friends and classmates, and called each other across the quad and across campus on cell phones that were as ubiquitous as caps and gowns.

Nomathemba Mhlanga beamed with pride and posed for pictures with friends as her mother, Ellen Mhlanga, looked on. The daughter, who received her bachelor's degree in agricultural economics from the University of Zimbabwe, was about to receive her master's degree in applied economics and management from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She plans to continue at Cornell for her Ph.D.

Ellen Mhlanga came to Ithaca from Zimbabwe to watch her daughter receive her degree. "I came special for this day," she said before posing for more photos. Her daughter plans eventually to return to Zimbabwe and teach at a university -- and also to design a master's degree program similar to the one she has just completed in CALS. "We have to be educated here and then go back home and educate others," she said. "I want to help build human capital in Zimbabwe."

Jason Blinder, who was receiving his bachelor's degree in government from the College of Arts and Sciences, almost didn't make it to the Commencement ceremonies because he was hospitalized with Crohn's disease, a chronic and often debilitating condition that has plagued him throughout his time at Cornell. Fortunately, Blinder was discharged from the hospital with two days to spare.

For Blinder, a native of Delray Beach, Fla., attending the Commencement ceremonies was a triumph of making up for time lost to the disease and finishing his degree in four years, despite the odds. "I'm very grateful to walk with my classmates," he said. Blinder was just as proud of being able to serve this past academic year as president of Pi Sigma Alpha, the national honor society for political science and government majors. Blinder co-founded the Cornell chapter in 2003 with fellow graduate Peter Cohl, and 30 students were inducted into the honor society this year. Blinder is heading to the University of Pennsylvania Law School this fall.

Cohl and his wife, Zoë, said they think of themselves as beating a different type of odds -- he is 42, she is 32, they have two children, and both Peter and Zoë were high school dropouts. "For me, it's 20 years late, for Zoë, it's 10 years late," said Peter Cohl, who double majored in government and urban and regional studies. "Cornell has given us an extraordinary opportunity to make a complete life change. We're the embodiment of 'any person, any study' -- we are the 'any' people." He added, "We want to encourage other mature students to know that it's not impossible to do this."

Zoë Cohl majored in human development in the College of Human Ecology with a concentration in developmental cognitive neuroscience. "I think we're more grateful than your average student at being here," she said. She plans to take a year off as her husband heads for Siegel & Gale, a strategic branding firm in New York. "I want to spend some time with my teenager [son Cameron, 13], before he's too old to spend time with me." she said. Their other child, Simon, is 3.

Jae Kwon, a computer science and engineering major from Marietta, Ga., wasn't shy about admitting he was looking forward to life outside Cornell. "Afterward, I'm going to try to gather some students who don't want to work for traditional corporations or companies," he said. He plans to start his own company and recruit fellow graduates who may be looking for something different. "Companies are as imperfect as the humans who run them," he said. "That's what I learned at Cornell."

Jill Sollenberger, a hotel administration major from Boca Raton, Fla., remembered that coming to Cornell nearly four years ago was her first time up north. "I had never seen snow before coming to Cornell," she said. "It was brutal, but I would do it again." Sollenberger chose Cornell's Hotel School over staying in Florida and pursuing a general business degree. She has since acclimated to colder weather and is heading to Boulder, Colo., where she will be working in sales for Hyatt Hotels Corp.

Marcia Regen, Sollenberger's friend and a fellow "hotelie," experienced another kind of shock when she came to Ithaca: She is from Queens, N.Y., and suddenly was confronted with living in a small city surrounded by countryside. "I would definitely do it all over again," she agreed.

Adding an aura of royalty to the Commencement ceremonies was degree marshal Bajrakitiyabha "Patty" Mahidol, the crown princess of Thailand, who was receiving her J.S.D. from the Law School. On hand to watch Mahidol receive her degree were her father, Maha Vajiralongkorn, the crown prince of Thailand; her mother, Princess Soamsavali Kitiyakara; numerous media representatives from Thailand; and security personnel -- more than 50 people in total.