- I wrote a testimonial about what Cooper Union means to me. http://t.co/xlIrzatD I like it, I hope you do too! #
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Edited to add archive text!:
(CE ‘99) I confess in full that I only knew two things about Cooper Union when I applied: that it was free, and that it was hard to get into. I knew only slightly more when I was accepted: that the Engineering Building in the East Village looked like construction I’d made once from my grandmothers dusty old erector set when I was a kid. I don’t have a stirring “when found out I was accepted” remembrance. It turns out that I didn’t realize what Cooper Union was until I had been there for a while, and maybe not even until after I graduated.
I went to an upper middle class high school where I succeeded without doing much work. I was happy to take home my A- and B+ grades — and I took them home to boxes of cereal eaten in front of black and white movies shown on AMC, not hours of homework or studying for tests. When I applied to colleges I decided that even though my father volunteered to pay the other application fees – to ivy leagues, to state schools, and to solid well known engineering schools – I would pay the $20 fee for the Cooper Union application from my saved earnings from my short stint as a telemarketer. Applying to Cooper Union was really just a big experiment, and I didn’t think it was fair to ask my dad to pay for that. I didn’t know if I’d get in, I just wanted to TRY. I wanted to see if I had “it.” What “it” was, though, I couldn’t precisely tell you – but it had something to do with the specialness only around 13% of its accepted applicants would have in 1995.
I was, like many of my Cooper classmates, near the top of my high school class. I wanted to be an engineer because it sounded like a hands-on way to use my aptitude for maths and sciences. I liked that not many women were engineers and I could keep breaking down that barrier for younger women to follow. As an engineer, I was sure that the problems I faced professionally would change frequently, and I would stay engaged and interested in my job. It seemed like a good idea. But when I applied to colleges, I didn’t know where to go, or even exactly what to study. With logic only a 17 year old can get away with, I thought I would be rejected from some of these colleges and that would help me make my choice.
The acceptance letter to Cooper Union almost finalized my college decision. “How could I say no?” I would romantically tell my family and friends. But in all honesty, we were very practical about it: Dad and I compared financial aid packages and projected the cost of living in New York City. FAFSA forms were new to us and we were solidly in that band of comfortable-but-without-any-extra-cash-for-things-like-college middle class that doesn’t get much of a break on college tuitions. Despite that, and despite the promise of free tuition, Cooper Union very nearly broke even financially with my other top engineering school choices. Even state schools were not much cheaper than the Free Cooper Union. All that aside, though, I chose Cooper Union, and I chose NYC.
The first time my (divorced) parents and I went to Cooper Union it was for an Accepted Students (and Parents) Orientation. I think we took the train down from upstate NY and rode the subway to Astor Place. My mom was unsteady on her feet in the subway cars. She told strangers nearby that she couldn’t believe how naturally I navigated transit. Could they believe it? When I moved to NYC to start classes she told me of an older woman she’d met in Alcoholics Anonymous who had been thrown out of McSorleys for the simple gaucheness of being a woman in the 70s. She gave me a pair of small diamond earrings so I would have some liquid assets. You know, just in case.
Even after I arrived at Cooper Union, I still didn’t know what that special “it” was. I worked hard with my classmates – but they reminded me of my classmates from my above-average high school, and the classrooms were shabbier than the ones I had just come from. If anything Cooper Union gave me a huge shot of social confidence – I was, probably, one of the coolest nerds in an engineering school of nerds. At least, I felt like I was, and almost everyone who attends Cooper Union seems to be abnormally nice and didn’t disabuse me of this feeling (and I, also being abnormally nice, didn’t make a big deal of my incredible coolness). I learned to talk to boys – something I recall doing very little of in high school. I was an actor and producer for the Dramatic Society. I put on rock jams and acoustic nights with Pro Musica. I went to piles of classes and took more than my required credits in the school of humanities. I learned how to study, reluctantly, and started to understand the merit of keeping up on homework assignments. I flirted with fencing but eventually joined the tae kwon do club, achieving my first degree black belt before graduation. I lived on the cheap, subsisting for most of my time at Cooper on an average of $5 a day for food and necessities.
By now I understand that Cooper Union is the most special place I have ever been. Cooper Union taught me I can do anything I put my mind to. It took that aimless “shoot for the stars” feeling that made me apply and refined it, put a sharper point on it. When I left Cooper Union I said things like “It may have been free but it sure wasn’t cheap” and “I can rest when I’m dead.” I worked harder at Cooper Union than I have ever worked in my life. When I graduated not only did I get to sing the National Anthem before my classmates and their proud parents, but I felt like I had won a four year academic marathon. I Won Cooper Union.
I’ve heard many times the story of Peter Cooper and the transatlantic cable – how he lost the cable and his investors money several times and kept trying – like a mad scientist – to finish the job. He eventually did just that – but it took all of his resources, the despair of his peers, and himself actually standing on a ship in the cold Atlantic Ocean as he devised on the spot a tool or machine that would catch up the lost cable and save the day.
Peter Cooper believed in the scientific method – he tried and he tried again. He didn’t believe that his mind had any boundaries. His most grand experiment is Cooper Union – and it’s been through several iterations and refinements as well. The iteration I enjoyed in the late 90s was filled with non-competitive and collaborative learning. My education seemed to grow organically and without much input from the professors, and it was beautiful. I learned at Cooper Union that I shouldn’t be afraid of other people, because at our very core, we want our friends and colleagues to succeed. Peter Cooper introduced me to the very American concept of Abundance – that we could all succeed, and that there is abundant resource and innovation such that we can all succeed together, and without requiring the failure of another.
As Peter Cooper himself said in his Letter to the Trustees: “I desire, by all that I can say and by all that I can do, to awaken the minds of the rising generation an undying thirst for knowledge and virtue, in order that they may be able, by wise and honorable measures, to preserve the liberties we enjoy.”
I continue to learn more about how Cooper Union is special. It lives in the minds and hearts of those you least expect – not Artists, Architects, and Engineers — it’s actually hit or miss if those in the professional field you’ve studied will recognize the name. To this day the best compliment I’ve gotten on my choice of schools was from a former NYFD Officer, once chief of a busy and famous station in the South Bronx. He said to me in his thick Long Island accent: “You went to Cooper Union? You must be some kinda fuckin’ genius!” I met a distant cousin of a friend of mine at her Christmas party this year and she told me about how her husband who had died unfortunately young attended Cooper Union, and it changed his life. Most people will not know what Cooper Union is, but the ones who do almost always have a story of how Cooper Union has touched their lives. This speaks directly to Peter Cooper and his gift to the world of abundance.
Even though Cooper Union taught me many things about myself – it taught me to fake it ‘till I make it; success and humility; to work harder than ever before and the marvelous rewards for using my body and mind to their fullest potential; not to fear failure, but to persevere through it and to try again – attending Cooper Union also taught me a generosity in action towards my fellow human beings that I am grateful to have during these complicated social and political times. And above all, Cooper Union taught me the grace of overarching gratitude.
Karina Tipton (CE’99) is a practicing environmental engineer with an emphasis on sustainability and remediation. She lives in Montgomery NY with her partner and two stepboys, enjoys crafting, motorcycling, and preserving food, and has actively volunteered with the Cooper Union Alumni Association since 2006.