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How I “Found Myself” at Cornell University

Clay, a young white man with short brown hair, stands on a walkway between stacks of books in a library.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

In high school, I always heard that people “found themselves” in college. Whether that meant figuring out a major, career path, or personal calling, I was always intrigued with what this phrase meant.

I often told myself that I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I did not need to “find myself” in college because I already knew what I wanted: to study chemical engineering and work in pharmaceuticals.

I am still surprised to this day how wrong I was.

I began my time at Cornell University as a Chemical Engineering major, pursuing a minor in business. I thought adding a business minor would teach me some essential career skills should I ever decide to enter a management position later in life.

Everything was figured out.

About two months into my freshman fall semester, I joined a project team in the Chemical Engineering department on the business subteam. It would be a great way to incorporate business and chemical engineering together, or so I thought.

As the semester progressed, I gravitated to the business side of things. Even in my Introduction to Chemical Engineering course, I started feeling less enthused about the career paths out of the Chemical Engineering program and more excited about a career in business.

Entering my freshman spring semester, I struggled to shake the desire of entering a career in a suit and tie over a lab coat and goggles. Over spring break, I had a long conversation with my parents and one of my friends about my dilemma.

Being away from school, I was able to truly reflect on what I wanted out of college and beyond. Coincidentally enough, my friend’s family was heavily involved in the financial services industry and were generous enough to offer me a summer internship at their firm in San Francisco.

Wrapping up freshman year, I decided it was finally time to consider a pivot in my academic path at Cornell. Being in the College of Engineering, I wanted to find a major within my college that enabled me to mix engineering skills with finance.

It was then that I found Operations Research and Information Engineering. This degree focused heavily on statistics, data science, and financial engineering. It was the perfect mix of a business and an engineering degree.

Within a week, I spoke with my advisors about what classes I would need to take moving forward to be on track in my new major.

How To Land Your First Internship

I spent that summer learning about investment banking, wealth management, and the financial markets in my internship.

I, to say the least, loved my experience. I became convinced that I would be pursuing a career in finance.

Entering my sophomore year, I leveraged my new knowledge to attain a summer internship in New York with a bank doing sales and trading. I felt that working in the markets would be a great mix of quantitative skills with the trading side and people skills with the sales side.

I began to immerse myself in the markets, reading the Wall Street Journal in the mornings and trying to follow major trends. While my sophomore year progressed, I added a second minor in Data Science. I found leveraging algorithms to extract information to be exciting.

When the pandemic hit my sophomore spring semester, I decided that was my time to take advantage of remote work and learning. I scheduled calls every day with professionals across different banks to continue learning about roles in finance.

I discovered how much I enjoyed being in a business professional environment, meeting new people, and learning about the plethora of career options in the industry.

As my sophomore year concluded, I had changed my major and career path while also adding a second minor. I felt excited for what was to come that summer, despite the internship being remote.

Going through my sophomore summer internship showed me that I had chosen the right career path. I felt fully immersed in the markets, and every day was a new story.

With the added volatility from the pandemic, there was so much to follow in the industry and so many things for me to learn.

I continued to network to get a better understanding of what a full-time career in sales and trading might look like. It seemed thrilling and fast-paced, a place where I would never feel bored. I knew after that summer that I had found the right career for me.

I went into my junior year having a third internship lined up for the next summer. Though at a different company, this was also in New York City. I was hopeful that this internship would be in-person and I could fully experience what life was like working at a bank.

In the meantime, I focused on my studies in Operations Research. Going through junior year was difficult, and I often struggled in many of my courses.

Despite the struggles, however, I found the courses to be rewarding and I learned so much. Cornell offered so many interesting classes in my department and I felt thankful every day that I had made the switch into my new major.

When this past summer approached, I began to pivot my focus back to my career path and prepared for what I knew would be my most important internship in college.

I was fortunate enough to have an in-person internship, and in June I moved to New York City.

Though challenging, my junior internship was able to truly show me what life in a full-time position in sales and trading looked like. Long story short: I loved it.

I felt challenged, stimulated, and excited about every day of work. I loved living in New York, and I loved where I worked. When the summer ended, I received a full-time offer to work with an amazing team after graduating from Cornell.

As a senior now, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my past 3 years at Cornell. It feels like just yesterday that I was a young Chemical Engineering student trying to figure things out at a new school surrounded by new people.

I think about all the support I received from not only family and friends but also from Cornell in discovering the right major and career path for me.

Cornell helped me change my major and offered the perfect degree of study that aligned with my interests. I will be forever grateful for what I have learned during my time here and truly feel like I can say that I “found myself” in college.

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Author: Clay Nelson

I am a junior at Cornell University majoring in Operations Research and Engineering, minoring in Business and Data Science. I am from Northern California and love nature, running, traveling, and learning new things!