Kellen Cooks

Ossining, New York

I aim to expand my perspective on cities beyond New York City and allow my experiences in this rural section of the country to break down any prior preconceptions that I might have had on American life outside the Northeast corridor.

Why did you choose Cornell and AAP?

On my way to my Cornell visit, I honestly wasn't expecting to like it very much considering I have loved cities since I was in the womb and the drive up to Cornell is nothing but small farms, endless forests, and 3G cell service. However, once I got on campus, felt what the average day is like, met kids from my major, and slept over at Ujaama (the African-American theme house), I realized that I felt a sense of comfort and belonging at Cornell that I didn't feel at any other campus I'd been on. As I sat in on introductory and advanced undergraduate planning classes, not only were the professors engaging, but the students were also really engaged within the classroom, and chill and down-to-earth outside the classroom. I also did much more research on their urban studies program, and I learned about a lot of the community engagement programs such as Design Connect, where surrounding cities and towns in Upstate New York link up with undergrad urban studies majors to embark on projects together. The Cornell in Rome and AAP NYC programs will allow me to go to large cities and not only do in-depth studio work regarding neighborhoods within the city but also get planning work experience as well. These type of experiences will provide me with a more expansive perspective on urbanism beyond the big, bustling, American metropolis. I also sat in on a special topics class — Community Preservation, Art, and Equity — and not only was I instantly engaged (my high school science research project on graffiti disapproval in New York City closely correlated with the discussion), but I was also amazed by the passion of the students and the fluency of the conversation. By the end of my visit, I had that tingly feeling in my bones that told me that Cornell AAP might just be the place for me.

What inspired you to join the field of city and regional planning?

My fervor for cities has burned strong since the second that I was able to observe the dynamic and fast-paced environments that embody New York City. The entire concept of having such a densely populated place with people of so many backgrounds, all interacting in (relative) harmony, is completely mind-blowing to me. What is keeping all of these moving urban parts from colliding into each other, igniting a blaze into a dumpster fire of lost human potential? I have grown up during the age of peak gentrification, bearing witness to massive socioeconomic and racial shifts within American cities, but especially New York City. I have seen many parts of Brooklyn — where I spent the first years of my childhood — slowly transform from an uber-diverse mosaic to a playground for the rich and famous, becoming more a tourist attraction than a place for common New Yorkers to earn a living and strive for their dreams. I have also seen American urban infrastructure stagnate, stall, and decline while cities across the world implement innovative infrastructure and technologies miles beyond anything seen in the U.S. All of these urban phenomena have inspired me to be someone who doesn't just stand by these problems, but to be the one who addresses them and tries to find equitable solutions for communities.

What are your extracurricular interests and how have you incorporated them into your college life?

Throughout middle and high school, I've thrown shot put and discus as the captain of our varsity track team, but while I don't want to continue throwing in college, I do still love to stay in shape and work out. I've also loved singing for my entire childhood, and have performed in a vocal contemporary performance club for the past few years — I hope to continue singing in an acapella club at Cornell. On the other hand, I'm an avid (real) football fan and have been a faithful Crystal Palace supporter throughout their ups and downs in the Premier League; and I love my Knicks, and can still recite the entire lineup from the 2012–13 season. Academically, I love to conduct and read research regarding urban planning, and I have conducted an internationally recognized project deciphering the environmental and personal catalysts for graffiti disapproval amongst New York City neighborhoods and am constantly looking through Google Scholar for interesting articles.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time at AAP and after graduation?

In college and in my career, I aim to delve into how cities can maintain a healthy balance where working-class culture can coexist with gentrifying forces, and, more broadly, try to make the city a more equitable place, a leveler playing field for human success and happiness. Specifically within AAP, I aim to expand my perspective on cities beyond New York City, and see the concept of the city in a more malleable manner, allowing my experiences in this rural section of the country to break down any prior preconceptions that I might have had on American life outside the Northeast Corridor.