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An Interview With Student-Elected Trustee Nighthawk Evensen

A PhD student in Cornell's Department of Natural Resources, Nighthawk Evensen, recently was elected to a two-year term to Cornell's Board of Trustees, beginning July 1st. Nighthawk was kind enough to sit down during a busy finals week and chat with MetaEzra about his background, his aspirations for his tenure as trustee, and why Cornell's lacrosse team is better than Princeton's.

We have yet to see how Nighthawk's tenure as trustee plays out, but any person who capitalizes the U in 'university' when referring to Cornell is a friend of MetaEzra's. Below, a picture of Nighthawk:

MetaEzra: We should probably start with the obvious. You go by the name 'Nighthawk', and I think our readers will immediately be wondering about this. Was it a given name to you in your infancy, or is it something that you have adopted more recently?

Nighthawk Evensen: My birth name is Darrick Trent Evensen; my current name is Darrick Trent Nighthawk Evensen. During my year off between undergraduate study at Princeton and my graduate work at Cornell, I worked as an environmental educator at an alternative school. Entire grades of middle school children would come to the school and live in cabins at our school for one week at a time. In the mornings I would teach the children field ecology, taking them out in the woods, and in the afternoon I would teach general interest classes on science or history. After the kids went to bed for the night, I would often climb into the trees and sit in the branches about ten feet off the ground. I enjoyed observing nature with senses other than sight, listening to and smelling the natural world when my eyesight was of little use. I feel that people all too often focus primarily or solely on the wonderful visual aspects of nature; neglecting their other senses. My nights in the trees caused my fellow staff members to bestow the name Nighthawk upon me. I legally added "Nighthawk" as a second middle name about a year later.

You're a graduate student in the field of natural resources. What attracted you to Cornell?

Cornell is a great school with top-level programs, as everyone is well aware. Natural Resources is no exception to this rule. When applying to grad school, the choice was ultimately between becoming an Eli at Yale or joining the Big Red. My major advisor here, Dan Decker, made me realize how welcoming and down to earth the Cornell faculty are. At Cornell, it was refreshing to see that the academic leaders in my field were so approachable and willing to engage with students. The department of Natural Resources also takes a different approach to natural resource policy and management than I was exposed to at Princeton (as an undergraduate). Cornell's land grant mission is fully present in my department; I found this research and public engagement approach to be refreshing and engaging. A final factor that helped me make the decision to come to Cornell was my comparison of Ithaca to New Haven. I am a Natural Resources major and previously worked as a wilderness guide; for anyone who has ever been to New Haven, I need not explain further why I ended up in Ithaca.

What motivated you to run for student-elected trustee?

It may sound painfully insipid, but the primary reason that every trustee serves the University is that he or she has a deep love for Cornell. I am no exception. Everything this University has to offer academically, socially, and culturally has made it a home that I love. My love for Cornell is the ultimate reason I sought to serve on the Board. The more proximate reason for seeking election stemmed from my work as a member of the GPSA (the graduate and professional student assembly). I have been involved with the GPSA for the last three years, serving as GPSA president last year. This experience in campus governance taught me that the decision makers at Cornell really do care about and listen to student voice. My consistently positive interactions with the University administration and my limited exposure to the Board of Trustees told me that dedicating my time to Board would be a wise investment.

Now that you have been elected, what goals are you hoping to achieve during the course of your tenure? Are there any specific issues or problems that you hope to address?

The task of a trustee is less about agenda setting and more about bringing a unique perspective to the table. Each trustee offers invaluable knowledge to the Board based on his or her life work and experiences. What I can offer the Board is a clear assessment of how current students feel about and perceive the actions the Board of Trustees is considering. In my academic life, I am an environmental sociologist; I look forward to taking a sociological approach to my work as a trustee. I seek to collect as much accurate data as I can about student perspectives and sentiments; it is not my job to make a value assessment of this data, but to faithfully present the student views to the Board of Trustees as accurately as I can.

Having said all this, there are some issues in which I am particularly interested. Very soon the Board will approve a Strategic Plan for Cornell (the first comprehensive plan for the University in our 145 year history). I am very interested in closely following the implementation of the Strategic Plan and ensuring that the various components of the plan are implemented well, without any goals falling through the cracks. The Board of Trustees will approve the Strategic Plan, as such I feel it is only appropriate that the Board should follow its implementation closely to ensure that what they promised for the University is actually taking place.

Between Cornell's fiscal situation, its 'Reimagining' program, and the student tragedies of the past academic year, you are coming in at a pretty precarious time for the institution. In your interactions with Day Hall and the larger body of trustees, how would you describe their outlook for Cornell's future?

Cornell is resilient. We are resilient because we have amazing people who care deeply about the Cornell community (past, present, and future) at our helm. Last year I had the fortunate opportunity to interact with Provost Fuchs on a semi-regular basis, through my work on the GPSA and by serving on his strategic planning advisory committee. I cannot identify anyone I would rather see heading up the "Reimagining Cornell" initiative than our current Provost. He is a highly approachable and intelligent individual who thinks deeply about any suggestion or advice you may provide.

Immediately following the student tragedies, I was called to a Saturday afternoon meeting in Willard Straight Hall with other student leaders, several administrators, and leaders from Gannett. I saw three things that day that made me optimistic about the ways in which Cornell will deal with the student tragedies and move forward: (1) one of the first items on the administrators' minds was to reach out to the students to seek their help and advice on responding to the deaths, (2) I observed that the University staff was quickly mobilizing, working overtime, and using all its resources to address the issue, (3) I saw that the tragedies were deeply personal events for the university staff; this reminded me of how much everyone in the Cornell community cares about our students and how far they will go to ensure our students' well being.

We all know that Cornell has driven over some speed bumps lately. I agree, however, with President Skorton, who has forecast a progressive return to normalcy in terms of Cornell's financial situation over the next couple years. I also know that the recent tragedies on campus will only foster a more responsive Cornell community where faculty, students, and staff learn how better to look out for each other. I am convinced we have caring, intelligent people operating at every level within the University to solve any ills we have recently experienced. I look forward to working with these dedicated individuals as trustee.

You completed your undergraduate studies at Princeton. Cornell and Princeton are two very different institutions in terms of structure, funding, and character, with perhaps the most important aspect being that Princeton is almost ten times as wealthy as Cornell when measured on an endowment per student basis. How do you think your experience at Princeton will inform your role as a Cornell trustee?

You cited some of the differences between Cornell and Princeton; I shall start with a similarity. Perhaps the most noticeable similarity between these two great institutions both schools' focus on public engagement. Our land grant mission corresponds nicely with Princeton's unofficial motto, "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations." When looking at the proposed Strategic Plan for Cornell, I see in it the greatest aspects of my Princeton experience: (1) a focus on public engagement and (2) explicit recognition of the importance of high quality teaching in a leading research institution. I hope that my experience at Cornell helps me to offer valuable ideas during the implementation of Cornell's strategic plan.

Princeton is certainly wealthier than Cornell, allowing Princeton, for example, to instate financial aid policies that are simply not achievable at Cornell. I think this difference, however, makes Cornell's strong commitment to making Cornell affordable even more meaningful. One of the reasons "Reimagining Cornell" is so important is that we do not have the unfathomable largess of some of our peer institutions. My experience at Princeton has taught me that an extremely wealthy university can offer its students many great opportunities; however, I believe that Cornell offers its students almost all of these same opportunities and some that Princeton cannot provide. My job as trustee will be to work with my colleagues to ensure this remains true.

What has been your favorite part about Cornell and living in Ithaca?

The people, the university, the rural-urban interface, the gorges, the running trails, sailing on Cayuga, the farmer's market, and the home that Cornell and Ithaca have become for me in such a short time. In a word, everything.

Even though Princeton still holds the all-time series against Cornell's men's lacrosse team, 37-33-2, the Big Red have won the last three out of four games in the series. What's going on at Old Nassau?

As a student in natural resources, I always look for an environmental explanation. We all know that the Big Red athletes are breathing cleaner air than our friends in New Jersey; perhaps Ithaca's atmospheric advantage over Princeton's environment has finally reached a critical level.

So now that the Princeton lacrosse team is out of the NCAA tournament, will you be cheering for the team in carnelian and white?

While I cheered for Cornell last year, this led to a precarious situation at home as my fiancee is a graduate student at Syracuse. Now that Army defeated Syracuse, I am on board without any reservation to witness a crushing defeat for the military academy next week.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on May 19, 2010 (#)

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