Interview by Andrea Midgett
Unlike others who have been featured on this page, Ellie Schmucker does not live at a Chesterton House residence. Although she knows almost everyone in the women’s house and many residents in the men’s house, Schmucker says she made good friends early on in her time at Cornell with whom she wanted to share a smaller, quieter living space. But not living in the women’s residence has not thwarted Schmucker’s involvement with the ministry in any way. Rather, Schmucker simply knows her mind; she has a good sense of what will and what will not work for her. She is realistic about the academic demands placed upon Cornell students. She says Chesterton House acknowledges those demands and does not try to compete with them – a posture for which she repeatedly expresses gratitude. Schmucker has attended numerous Chesterton House sponsored events since she was a first-year student, including pre-orientation retreats and many Friday afternoon talks. A senior Mathematics and German Studies major, Schmucker talks quickly, knowledgably, and without second-guessing herself.
How did you wind up at Cornell?
I am from a well-educated family. My mother is a radiologist and my father is in finance. My parents are from the Philadelphia area; they both went to school in Philadelphia and then stayed there. I am the youngest of three children. I grew up in the same house my parents bought when my brother, the oldest, was born. His wife is in medical school. I also have an older sister, who is also in medical school. We are a homebody sort of family.
I went to a Christian school grades K-12. It was a pretty cool experience. I don’t think I fully realized then what a blessing it was. Our school had a motto along the lines of: Think critically. Act Biblically. Faith and Science, God and Nature – different areas of study were connected for us. We were prepped to know why you believe what you believe, all the while realizing there are other people with other opinions. It was a pretty strong academic program. It was well done.
I applied to Cornell to study statistics. Not that many undergraduate schools offer a statistics program, but Cornell does. That’s how I ended up here. However, during my first year I took a lot of math classes, which I decided I liked better. Statistics involves a lot of approximation; it was less intuitive for me. I like being able to prove everything in math. I added German Studies as another major only this semester. I’d been taking German classes all along, and I spent last semester in Berlin.
How did you find your way to Chesterton House? Did you know about it before you arrived on campus?
I learned about Chesterton House from searching online for different Christian groups at Cornell. The summer before my freshman year was the first time Chesterton House hosted a pre-orientation retreat for incoming students. It was a one-night deal, spent on the floor of a church. I signed up, thinking it might be nice to know someone when I showed up in the Fall. This was especially important to me because Cornell is a lot larger than my high school was, where I knew everyone. And though my sister was two years ahead of me in school, we are only 15 months apart in age, and we did everything together. She is a lot more outgoing than me. I didn’t need to make new friends growing up because I had already known them since kindergarten or she made them for us.
The pre-orientation retreat was really helpful. It was a nice way to start Cornell. The talks helped us frame all Cornell has to offer with the realization you can take so many courses and still find yourself without a real goal. We talked about questions like: Who are we? Why are we at a university?
I still talk with a lot of people I met that during that first retreat. And I have helped with pre-orientation programs every year since. I was only able to help for a few hours this past summer, but it was kind of nostalgic. I was with several international students. They were totally nervous and awkward, like I remember being.
What is your overall impression of Chesterton House? Does it work?
Many students involved with Chesterton House are also connected with other Christian organizations on campus. Chesterton House plays an important role helping students connect their faith to what they are studying and what they plan to do in the future. Thinking like this wasn’t new to me because of my Christian school background, but it’s been helpful for me as a Cornell student to know I am with others who think similarly. I have benefited from some specific offerings of Chesterton House as well. I took one of the accredited classes and have attended many Friday afternoon talks. Chesterton House is able to bring in a lot of people who have thought a lot about their areas of study and faith. That has been helpful.
I have really appreciated Karl Johnson’s appreciation that we, as students, are here to study. It is very easy to get swept up into a myriad of Christian activities. I remember so well those first talks we had at pre-orientation – that our faith should impact how and why we study. The folks at Chesterton House have been good at reminding us, “There are a lot of opportunities at Cornell, a lot of them very good opportunities. But you only have so much time. You have to make decisions about what you want to do, which Christian groups you want to join, etc.”
Even then, we wind up overcommitting ourselves. But it is good advice to hear. Why am I doing what I am doing? How should I commit my time? Learning to say no to things that aren’t necessarily bad, but just aren’t right for the time, that is good advice.
What other groups are you involved with?
I am connected with Claritas, a student-run, student-written journal of Christian thought – and I don’t even like to write! But I do like sharing what we are thinking about, from issues like social justice to consumerism, with other students on campus. Our lens is that because God created everything, we should be able to consider and discuss everything. Chesterton House has been very supportive of our work. Actually, Chesterton House staff helped students start the magazine, so Claritas wouldn’t even exist without Chesterton House’s help.
Have you had any unexpected challenges to your faith since you’ve been at Cornell?
Cornell requires a lot of its students, and it is sometimes difficult to remember why I am studying so hard. Obviously, I want to pass my classes. I want to teach high school math, maybe go back one day for my certification. But to remember that I am doing this, being a student, as a Christian – that I am foremost a Christian – that is a constant struggle.
There can be a lot of pride here, people wearing their busyness and tiredness as a badge of honor. Constant studies, the gray weather – it can all contribute to a perspective that is not particularly healthy.
From the beginning, we were told by Chesterton folks that we were going to find ourselves with too many commitments, that we would need to settle down and consider what is and what is not most important to us. Chesterton House really helps Cornell students gain a good perspective on our time, helps us fit all the parts of our lives as students together into a whole.
There is a thoughtfulness to Chesterton House that I appreciate, that Karl and Billy and Nicole help reinforce. I took a class taught by Ryan O’Dowd one semester, and he clarified for us the idea that there is a real difference between curiosity and studiousness. Curiosity does not want to wait, while studiousness is all about waiting. Studiousness is not expecting you will understand a religious or academic text the first time you read it, but taking your time with it, living with it. Being patient with it. Being deliberate.
Being a student would be a lot to handle if I were doing this alone, but with Chesterton House and other Christian groups, with Claritas, and my church, it is possible. There is a lot that reminds me of the Gospel. As Bonhoeffer says, we live in community. We should constantly be speaking truth to each other.
One final question, what do you think about the facilities at Chesterton House. Do they make a difference?
Oh, my goodness! The new women’s house is beautiful! I come here sometimes just to study. It’s really nice having a physical space where students feel they can come and hang out, even if they are not Chesterton House residents. Also, the houses have a great library. I had my eye on a book on math and God as I sat in a meeting a few weeks ago; I am now reading it at home. And many students who are not officially residents talk regularly with Chesterton House staff and/or volunteers.
Living at Chesterton House is an individual decision. Being a part of it is a commitment. Students are interviewed, have to sign a contract, etc. But I think it is good. I would tell any interested students they should come look at it, consider it.