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The real NY-factor: Collaboration reigns

The day before school started I hosted a potluck at my house to celebrate our upcoming semester. Students brought their roommates and families to meet their classmates, and we tried dishes from different countries.

By Maria Kalaitzandonakes, MS ’19

Let me first say, my heart is midwestern. I grew up in the middle of Missouri. I’m made of corn fields, humidity, and good manners. So when I was making my grad school decision, the thought of coming to Cornell scared me. Not the academic rigor or notorious winters, but what I began to refer to as the “New York factor.” I pictured a competitive, cut-throat place. One where grades and furrowed eyebrows reigned. Where winning trumped the rest.

I love learning, but I hate mean-spirited competition. When I was a child, faced with a swimming coach who used yelling as a motivational tactic, I quit—striking a deal with my mom that I would still swim the same number of laps each day. In teenagehood I played “zen-scrabble” weekly—all the fun of scrabble with none of the points or squabbling. In my undergraduate program I never shared my grades with anyone and formed study and work groups in each class, believing it was much more important that we all worked together.

Left: Collaborating with classmates in Mann Library;
Right: Finishing up a Saturday study session at Starbucks with classmates

So as summer waned, I swallowed my fear of the NY-factor and headed to Ithaca. I unloaded my UHaul, full of mismatched dishes and an extra-worn rocking chair, and then headed to math camp.

On my first day the Cornell folks said the sweetest words and eased all my worry:

“The students who do well here are not the ones that hole up in their rooms by themselves, trying to be the top of their class. The students who do well here are the ones who learn to collaborate and learn along with others. … Research is about collaboration.”

I went home with a perma-smile, Missouri-dimples showing. I was in the right place.

Snapping a commemorative selfie after a Consumer Demand class.
Snapping a commemorative selfie after a Consumer Demand class.

Since then, this statement has been proven true every single day. My 33 classmates have become close friends, my professors have become advisors, and older students have become mentors.

The NY-factor turned out to be a program full of excited, intellectually curious, future economists. It turned into potlucks with dishes from each student’s homeland, endless group study sessions in Mann Library, and a slew of supportive texts, calls, and Queen jam sessions.

From Porchfest to Econometrics, and from apple picking to research, my experience in Dyson has shown me just what the real NY-factor is: an endless spirit of collaboration.

My heart may be midwestern, but it feels right at home in Ithaca.


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Maria Kalaitzandonakes, MS ’19

Maria Kalaitzandonakes is a Missouri native with a mile-long last name. She's currently a first year Master’s student studying applied economics at Cornell. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Missouri in science and agricultural journalism and agricultural economics. She's interested in international food security, access to agricultural technology, and how media shapes the agricultural conversation.
Maria Kalaitzandonakes, MS ’19

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