Stories of the Cornell Spirit: Freya Brier ’80

In the winter of 2017 at an alumni event, I had the opportunity to meet Freya R. Brier ’80, who told one of the most moving Cornell stories that I have ever heard. It should come as no surprise that our faculty and staff are central to the Cornell Spirit. — Jonathan Brand

Faculty generosity toward students

Freya Brier '80
Freya Brier ’80

I was born into a lower middle-class family in Chicago. While both my parents were intelligent and valued education, I was the first in my family to have the opportunity to attend a four-year college when I left for my freshman year at Cornell in 1976. But in 1978, when I was at the end of my sophomore year at Cornell, my father lost his job. He was 56 and wouldn’t find a new job for several years.

I called the college to tell them I didn’t think I would return in the fall, fully expecting that they wouldn’t do anything more than wish me luck. But Charles Milhauser, the Cornell registrar at the time, sprang into action, identifying scholarships for which I could qualify, helping me apply for them, and arranging for a work-study job in exchange for partial tuition coverage. I was able to piece together enough funds to cover my tuition for my junior and senior years.

I had planned to finish my Spanish degree by doing my spring blocks in 1979 in Spain, but the funds I had assembled didn’t stretch far enough. Then someone told me about an available job waiting tables at a popular Greek restaurant in Cedar Rapids, but I didn’t have a car to get to the job—until Sally Farrington-Clute, my Spanish professor, offered me the loan of her car nights and weekends so that I could get to and from my job! And over winter break, Sally and her husband offered me the use of their house and car in exchange for cat-sitting, so instead of going home, I worked two shifts a day at the restaurant every day during the break, and earned enough tips to fund my spring blocks in Spain to finish my Spanish degree.

If all that wasn’t enough, in the fall of my senior year, after I had taken two blocks of Russian, the U.S. announced it would not attend the 1980 Summer Olympics held in the Soviet Union in retaliation for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet-American relations were at an all-time low, and in response, a group called the Citizens’ Exchange Corps put together a one-of-a-kind program where a mixed group of U.S. citizens would spend March of 1980 as goodwill ambassadors traveling throughout the Soviet Union and meeting Soviet citizens. Nancy Ickler, my Russian professor, submitted my name as a candidate for the group, and I desperately wanted to participate. But the $400 cost of the program was beyond the savings I had left for my senior year, and my dad was still unemployed. So, I had to turn down the invitation to be a part of the group.

A few days later, there was a plain envelope with my name written on it in my mailbox in Pauley Hall. I was shocked to find that the envelope contained a cashier’s check in my name for $400 and nothing else—no note, no names. No one ever took credit for the check, but I have my suspicions as to whom it came from. With that check, I was able to go to the Soviet Union, and the experiences of that month will remain with me the rest of my life. And even today, almost 40 years later, sitting in my kitchen in Bellevue, Washington, writing this story, I cry when I remember that anonymous and generous act to support one student’s desire to learn.

I never expected, nor really fully understood for years afterward, the magnitude of the generosity and caring of the Cornell community, without which I would never have been able to graduate from college, let alone graduate with the incredible life experiences that formed me as an individual and enabled me to graduate from law school, have a fulfilling and successful career, and retain a lifelong joy of learning, languages, and travel. I know, had I gone anywhere other than Cornell, I most likely would not have been able to finish college. The annual contributions I make to Cornell can never fully repay the value of the opportunities Cornell made available to me.

Other stories in this series:

The generous, overarching warmth and spirit of campus: Dyan Smith, honorary alumna

Staff generosity toward students: Jeff Zupancic ’91

Alumni helping alumni: Brandon Crawford ’12

Extending financial aid for those with the greatest need: Gilda Vinzulis Boyer ’84

Current staff, faculty, and students describe the Cornell Spirit

Adapted from a January 2018 presidential white paper