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December graduates set out to make a difference

First-generation student Sagar Chapagain ’17 discovered his passion for medicine and health policy while studying at CALS. He joined more than a 100 other CALS students recognized Dec. 17 at Cornell’s annual event for December graduates. 

For Sagar Chapagain ’17, his interdisciplinary studies degree from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences completes another step toward a career in medicine and health policy.

When he arrived on campus in 2015, “I was very scared, to be honest – very nervous,” he said. “I was the first in my family to attend college. I’d been in this country for only six years. English was not even my first language.” He had emigrated from Nepal with the rest of his family to join his father in Maryland in 2011. Four years and two associate degrees later, he entered Cornell to study molecular biology and behavioral neuroscience, and earned a Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship.

More than 480 students receiving midyear degrees, including master’s and doctoral candidates, were recognized Dec. 16 in Barton Hall at Cornell’s annual event for December graduates.

President Martha E. Pollack said she prepared for her commencement address by perusing a website maintained by National Public Radio, with 350 commencement speeches dating to 1774. “What I found was interesting,” she said. “Surprisingly to me, many of them did not mention current events at all.”

Those that did, however, “were filled with statements like this: ‘The world we have made out of the inheritance of our grandfathers is a pretty sad botch. It is full of gross injustices.’ So said journalist William Allen White, speaking at Northwestern in 1936. Or: ‘This country has profound and pressing social problems on its agenda,’” she said, quoting U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke in 1969 at Wellesley College.

”It’s certainly hard, on a day like this, not to think about the world into which you’re graduating and about the issues you’ll face,” Pollack said. “How will you avoid becoming overwhelmed with the challenges of our society, instead positioning yourself to make a difference and have a positive impact? Today, I have just one suggestion for you. Start with compassion. Start with understanding. Start with kindness and with love.”

President Martha E. Pollack congratulates a graduate student onstage in Barton Hall. Photo by Robert Barker.

Pollack continued: “The biggest, most difficult problems we face today seem to stem from divisiveness in our communities and in the broader society. They stem from an apparent inability to reach across difference, to listen, and to really understand, communicate and compromise. I hope that during your time at Cornell, you’ve seized the opportunity to interact with others who are truly different from you, who bring to the table different life experiences, different perspectives, different skills and different weaknesses.”

In conclusion, she told the graduates, “I wish you a future of success, of happiness, of making a difference, and of doing so with love.”

Chapagain said his participation in the Intergroup Dialogue Project –aimed at fostering communication and empathy across differences – and finding support among other first-generation students through the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives gave him a further sense of purpose.

He also “found this new passion at Cornell,” he said, in a course on the U.S. health care system with professor of policy analysis and management Sean Nicholson. “That course changed my life – it showed me the kind of doctor I wanted to be in the future.”

His adviser, Cole Gilbert, a neurobiologist and professor of entomology, recommended an interdisciplinary studies major to address Chapagain’s interests in biology, health policy and the humanities.

“Health is more than a physician prescribing pills to his or her patients,” Chapagain said. “There are social determinants of health. In health policy class I was sitting and learning about how complicated and fragmented our health care system is, and that got me into writing about it.”

He has written about health policy in op-eds for The Ithaca Journal, The Cornell Daily Sun and USA Today, and given multiple talks on the U.S. health care system as a guest speaker in classes at Cornell. He is now applying for research fellowships at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he interned last summer, and at Harvard University. He will apply to medical schools next year.

He credits his professors, adviser, peers and experiences at Cornell with helping him get this far: “There is not something special about me, but a lot of people have invested in me and told me what I’m capable of. It’s been a fascinating experience.”

Graduates, family and friends in Barton Hall at the recognition event for December 2017 graduates. Photo by Robert Barker.

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.