Hope is in connections we make, say final Soup & Hope speakers

Nancy Doolittle
Kimerly Cornish, youth and family program coordinator for graduate student families at Hasbrouck Community Center, traced her family’s many ties to Harriet Tubman.


At a talk she gave in Sage Chapel March 23, Frances Yufen Lee Mehta, senior lecturer of Chinese Mandarin in the Department of Asian Studies, recounted her parents’ fleeing from the 1940’s civil war in mainland China, to Taiwan, her own journey from Taiwan to the U.S., and her experiences as a faculty fellow and faculty-in-residence at Cornell.

A week later, Kimerly Cornish, youth and family program coordinator for graduate student families at Hasbrouck Community Center, traced her family’s many ties to Harriet Tubman.

Both of these Soup & Hope presenters see their experiences as testimony to the same tenet: that hope is found in human interconnections.

“Life is not always a smooth passage; there are ups and downs and even times of struggle and despair,” said Mehta, who attributed surviving tough times to her determination, strength and hope that things would turn out for the better.

Mehta’s parents had six children – five, including Mehta, who were born in Taiwan. Her mother died when Mehta was six years old. Her father was a teacher and believed in the value of an education; much of Mehta’s young life was spent studying. Mehta also decided to be a teacher, because of the impact she might have on others.

Mehta was well-established in her teaching career in Taiwan but in 1990 decided to move to the U.S. with her two sons.  Giving up everything to come to the U.S. was “bold,” she said, “but the prospect and hope for a better life gave me strength to make that move.”

In January 1994, soon after completing her M.A. in language acquisition, she accepted a position to teach Chinese Mandarin at Cornell.

 At Cornell she met her future husband, Phiroze Mehta, now professor emeritus in Ithaca College’s School of Music. Mehta said she loved teaching Mandarin and she loved her students, many of whom would seek her out for personal advice.  In 1996 she became a faculty fellow, and 11 years later a faculty-in-residence in Court-Kay-Bauer. She and her husband held many programs of academic, cultural and social interest for the students, oftentimes with “vigorous discussions and debate.”

Now a faculty fellow for the High Rises, faculty adviser to 12 student organizations and a five-year cancer survivor, Mehta said her life revolves around her work, Cornell activities and – of course – students. “I hope I have touched them as much as they have touched me,” she said.

Cornish focused her Soup & Hope talk on the connections she made with others while pursuing her family’s interest in and relationship to Harriet Tubman, a leading “conductor” on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s, who helped others to freedom.

For Cornish, hope is “in the everyday exchanges and activities of people…. There are always connections that can be made.”

These connections extended from visits Cornish and her mother took to Tubman’s residence in Auburn, New York, to an unveiling of a painting of Tubman in 2008, where her mother talked at length with the artist. When her mother unexpectedly died in July 2009, Cornish regretted not having recorded her mother’s reminiscences and knowledge. She began to document and share her family’s Tubman and civil rights relationships.

In 2014, Cornish presented a paper on Tubman at a conference at which a senior curator of history in the National Museum of African American History and Culture was giving a keynote address. The curator described a display of vintage hats by a milliner who lived in Philadelphia. Cornish’s aunt Mildred had been a hat model in the same city; through further research she was able to determine that the milliner the curator described was the same milliner for whom Mildred had modeled.

Last November, Cornish reached out to Gloria Richardson Dandridge, a 1960s civil rights leader from Cornish’s hometown, having been impressed by the work Dandridge had done. Dandridge replied that many others had been involved in civil rights then, too; she was just doing what she had to do. Cornish was able to establish a connection by sharing that she was known to Dandridge’s family.

Recently, Cornish drove to the grand opening of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Dorchester County, Maryland. There, she talked with a professor from Morgan State University, who remembered Cornish’s mother giving tours of Dorchester County more than a decade earlier.

“My mother worked for something bigger than herself,” Cornish said. Cornish urged the audience to “go forward and share your stories,” because “you never know when a tiny story of yours is going to fill somebody else’s life and motivate and inspire them to something higher.”