Falconer, aspiring astronaut, dancer: Meet the Class of ’26
By Chris Dawson
What do a falconer, an astronaut-in-training, a hip-hop dancer and a social entrepreneur have in common? They are all part of Cornell Engineering’s Class of 2026 - one of the most diverse in the college’s history.
Research into high-functioning groups has shown that teams encompassing a wide range of backgrounds and experiences are more creative and come up with better solutions to problems than more homogeneous groups do. Scott Campbell, executive director of engineering admissions, keeps this idea in mind when assembling a new class of admitted students.
“I always think of a table with people seated around it who are trying to create solutions to an incredibly challenging problem. For me, that visual helps me consider the notion that diversity should never be narrowly defined, but rather viewed as bringing an array of lived experiences, ideas and skills to bear on the immediate problem,” Campbell said. “The hallmark of a great university education is exposure to, and engagement with, a range of ideas and lived experiences and so we try to put people in those seats who represent diversity in all sorts of ways.”
Comfort is overrated
A very wise high school orchestra teacher named Catherine Birke once told Marcus Gamboa “Embrace discomfort. Be epic or be nothing.” Gamboa took that advice to heart.
As with just about every member of the Class of 2026, changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic played havoc with Gamboa’s high school years. Suddenly, one of the things he liked to do most – playing the viola in an orchestra for a live audience – was no longer an option. Rather than spend the months of distance learning mourning the loss of the opportunity to perform, Gamboa took his teacher’s advice and poured himself into another passion: hip-hop dance.
“COVID was, and still is, a terrible thing,” Gamboa said. “Ms. Birke helped me see it also as a chance to focus on my passion and really put in some time and effort at a thing I love.”
If you find @marcus_arts on Instagram, you can see the results of Gamboa’s hard work. In one video, he can be seen effortlessly popping and locking on a park bridge, perfectly matching the vibe of the Blxst song playing in the background. The Instagram post is appropriately hashtagged “#aesthetic” – not only an important component of dance, but one of the core design principles of engineering.
Ena Jovanovic grew up in the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina and became fascinated at a young age by the higher education system in the United States. Jovanovic would watch American television shows with her mom, and she loved seeing American college life depicted on the screen. She knew she wanted to cross the Atlantic for college, but she wasn’t exactly sure where she would land.
She did some research and put Cornell on her list. A neighbor from her hometown of Zenica happens to be a current sophomore at Cornell Engineering, and he confirmed that it would be worth leaving home for.
Jovanovic is not daunted by the distance. This is not the first time she has left home to pursue educational opportunity.
“Ever since I was 10 years old I dreamed of going to the United World College in the city of Mostar, which is more than 100 miles from Zenica,” Jovanovic said. Over the course of a few years, she wore down her parents’ resistance and she enrolled in UWC Mostar for the final two years of high school.
“My experiences in Mostar taught me so much and let me see that going to Cornell was definitely something I could do and be happy,” Jovanovic said. “At first, it was tough being so far from home. But it got better quickly. Based on that experience, I know I will miss my parents while I am at Cornell and they will miss me, but they understand this is an amazing opportunity.”
While in high school, she organized a five-day field trip to the town of Visoko to explore some archeological sites. She also co-led a tutoring service for fellow students. In addition to an international perspective, Jovanovic brings a love of basketball and a wish to dive into undergraduate research as soon as she can. She is not sure what she wants to major in yet, but is keeping herself open to all the possibilities.
Kind, self-aware, curious
As part of the team that created the Class of 2026, Ginger Jung, assistant director of engineering admission, read thousands of applications starting in January of 2022.
“Well, of course we seek students who have a love for math and science and do well in those classes,” Jung said. “But we are also looking for applicants who are kind, self-aware, and intellectually curious. Usually, those traits show up authentically in the application – that’s hard to fake.”
Riley Coogan wasn’t sure where to get his undergraduate degree, and he was accepted by multiple schools. It was a last-minute visit to Ithaca in the spring that sold him on Cornell.
“Everybody I met was very friendly and helpful – honestly, this was a bit of a surprise,” Coogan said. “Growing up in Atlanta you hear all these things about New York, but Cornell was so far from the stereotype I grew up with.”
It helped that Cornell offers everything Coogan was looking for in a school. He has loved math his entire life and began teaching himself coding years ago. He got so good at it that he had a summer internship with a health care company before coming to Ithaca and was able to make an impact on their operations. He was active in his school’s Hope Squad as a student ambassador focused on suicide awareness and prevention, and he also played baseball and basketball. Oh, and one more thing – Coogan is a licensed falconer.
After reading the classic novel “My Side of the Mountain,” Coogan and his father embarked on a two-year training that concluded with both of them becoming permitted falconers. Coogan raised and trained three red-tailed hawks in his senior year of high school and is currently sorting through the process of getting certified in New York state to work with raptors while he is at Cornell.
He plans to major in computer science, but also wanted to be at a school that provides a variety of academic options in the event he changes his plan. He has a strong interest in entrepreneurship, and Cornell offers just the sorts of entrepreneurship classes and opportunities he was looking for.
“I don’t really like just doing one thing,” Coogan said, “and Cornell felt like a place I can do a lot of what I like and maybe even find new interests.”
Silochanie Miller grew up in Brooklyn and went to Stuyvesant High School. During their junior year they attended (virtually) a STEM outreach event for high school students hosted by the Graduate Women’s Group of Cornell’s Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. This event opened Miller’s eyes to the possibility of majoring in engineering and put Cornell firmly on the radar as a college possibility.
The more Miller looked into it, the clearer it became that Cornell was an excellent fit for their interests. During high school Miller had worked on the school paper as an editor and fact-checker and was a member of the math team. During school breaks they liked to embroider, spin and dye wool, and make jewelry. Miller was also a long-time volunteer at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, acting as a peer mentor and an assistant teacher for horticulture classes. It was this last interest that may have tipped the scales to Cornell’s favor when it was time for Miller to choose a school.
“I have always been interested in plants and agriculture and may decide someday to focus on crop development – though it is too soon to say that with any certainty, since I also can see myself moving into materials sciences or medicine,” Miller said. “Cornell gives me a chance to explore any or all of these as an undergrad.”
Beth Kunz, senior associate director of engineering admissions, is another key member of the team that reads all of the applications that come in. The process is intense and grueling. And yet Kunz, despite her temporary exhaustion, always comes away from admissions season recharged and excited about the mission and the people of Cornell.
“Learning about these amazing individuals and their hopes and dreams is just so inspirational. I feel like there is hope in the world because so many of our applicants want to help make the world better, and they have the ability to do so,” Kunz said. “I get to see so many different perspectives and read about a wide array of life experiences – I find myself learning as I read. And then I get to actually meet some of the students as they begin their college journey and I keep seeing them over their years here. The growth that happens is just amazing – it makes me feel like, in some small way, I have helped them along their way and that we will all benefit because they are here.”
The extensive Project Team possibilities and the option of creating an independent major are what first caught Mohamed Kane’s attention about Cornell Engineering. Kane, who grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., as well as in Dakar, Senegal, has always been interested in putting what he is learning to good use.
As a high school student Kane developed an app to promote the idea of voluntourism to help mitigate some of the harmful effects of the tourism industry. The summer before his senior year, Kane worked with a group of students enrolled in an entrepreneurship and innovation class at Columbia University to create a business plan for an eco-friendly business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketplace where companies and consumers could find businesses that produce and sell products made from recycled ocean pollution. He and others in the group were so taken by the project that they have continued to work on it long after the final online class ended.
“So, when I was researching where I wanted to apply, I learned about operations research as a field and saw that Cornell is very strong in this area,” Kane said. “It seemed like it would be a great way to apply engineering to real life in a way that could solve problems and improve a wide variety of solutions and processes.”
Kane is not certain he will declare a major in operations research but he is excited to explore the possibility. And if it turns out that his interests lead him to another major, Kane is confident he will be able to stay at Cornell to pursue whatever that may be. The fact that he could also propose his own course of study is important to Kane.
“The opportunity for interdisciplinary learning through the independent major was reassuring as I applied,” Kane said. “It let me know that I could always connect different classes and topics to allow me to do the specific thing I want to do.”
Priya Abiram wants to go to space. She has known this since she was seven years-old and her family visited Kennedy Space Center, where she got to meet an astronaut. Rather than allow her space dream to remain a nebulous wish, Abiram made it an actual goal and took concrete steps to attain it.
In middle school, she built a prize-winning model rocket. In high school, she joined — and ultimately led — the robotics team. She was a cadet commander in the Air Force Auxiliary. She is earning a private pilots license. She is a Project PoSSUM citizen-scientist who will be gathering data about combustion under varying g-forces on board a sub-orbital flight in the summer of 2023. She has conducted research into the possibility of harvesting geothermal heat to power settlements on Mars – research she presented to the International Aeronautics Conference in Paris in September of 2022. And she has worked directly with Apollo 13’s lead engineer for life support systems, Don Rethke, to use space technology to make toddler car seats on Earth safer and more comfortable.
Early in her search for a school, Abiram visited campus to see what it felt like. She was wandering around on a self-guided tour of Upson Hall and struck up a conversation with a chemical engineering doctoral student. He then gave her a two-hour tour of various lab facilities, all the while talking about his research and answering questions.
“It was incredible,” Abiram said. “Seeing how passionate he was about his work and how generous he was with his time, I was like ‘These are the type of people I want to be surrounded by.’” A subsequent conversation with Mason Peck, the Stephen J. Fujikawa '77 Professor of Astronautical Engineering and NASA’s former chief technologist, sealed the deal.
At Cornell, Abiram hopes to affiliate with the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and continue her astronaut training as she also finds other ways to apply her education.
“Another big part about why I love aerospace engineering is its applications to everything back on Earth. Yes, we want to go farther in space, but at the same time going farther in space is bringing back solutions to improve home,” Abiram said.
Back in the Admissions Office, Campbell said, “Ultimately, as we pull the full set of selection priorities together, the class should be capable of learning at the highest levels in the classrooms and labs, they should contribute meaningfully to the life of the university, and they should be able to learn as much from one another as they do from any other part of their Cornell education.”
For the Class of 2026, it is mission accomplished.