I wrote my college application essays almost four years ago about wanting to shoot for the stars. My childhood was punctuated by space missions: Discovery’s Return to Flight, Cassini-Huygens, and New Horizons. In Cornell Engineering’s project teams and work co-op program, I saw a place that would enable me to fulfill my dream of becoming an engineer in the new Space Race.
My passion for engineering came out of the four years I spent as a part of my high school’s FIRST Robotics Competition team. Finding an engineering competition team like that in college became a priority for me, and Cornell Engineering’s project teams immediately stood out. If there is a type of vehicle you can think of, there is a project team for it at Cornell: racecars, drones, boats, rockets, submarines, and even hyperloop pods. I ended up joining the Baja SAE Racing team which builds an off-road buggy from the ground up every year to race in three intercollegiate competitions all around the United States. I was able to jump right into the machine shop and by the time we won the 4-hour endurance race that season in Kansas, there were parts on the car that I could proudly say that I had made. I learned countless skills from upperclassmen mentors as the list of designs I owned grew to include an engine dynamometer, wheel hubs, driveshafts, and eventually our fully custom V-belt continuously variable transmission. I love the hard-working, go get ‘em spirit of the team: bonding over late nights troubleshooting FEA models in the Swanson computer lab and early Saturday mornings running the CNC mills in the Emerson machine shop. There is something magical about the combination of competition, collaboration, and community in the project team experience that has brought out the best in me as an engineer, teammate, and leader. Being a part of Baja has given me some of my best friends, mentors, and memories at Cornell so far.
Cornell’s classes taught me the “first principles” of mechanical engineering, but Baja is what has taught me how to utilize them to bring parts from design to reality. The project team and academic experience at Cornell is truly a unique melding of theory, application, and competition that has defined me as an engineer. It was this combination of first principles knowledge and hands-on experience that has given me the opportunity to do a work coop designing some of America’s next generation of spacecraft.
In high school I had thrived whenever I was able to see what I learned in the classroom implemented in practice, so I knew that I was looking for a university that valued and supported giving its engineers industry experience. Even though I would be doing my co-op on a non-traditional timeline, Cornell supported me the entire way; working with me on my graduation plans and frequently checking in while I was on the job. I knew that attending Cornell would offer me amazing work opportunities, but I never could have dreamed that parts I designed would be flying above the Karmen Line by the time I walk down the graduation aisle. Just a few weeks ago when I had the incredible opportunity to stand behind the control room glass as a rocket launched its way towards the ISS, I felt excitement not because I had fulfilled a dream but because I knew that I was just getting started.
-Kenneth ’21, mechanical engineering