The first African-American student to enroll at Cornell, a former slave named Samuel Johnson, attended the college in 1870 in the preparatory department. He was followed by Charles Ruff, who studied in the preparatory department for three years beginning in 1873, but the first African-American awarded a degree was Frank Jeremiah Armstrong, who graduated in 1900 and later went on to a distinguished medical career. In 1968 a group of students demonstrating in favor of greater support for African-American students briefly occupied Old Sem. The result of this demonstration was the creation of Cornell’s first minority student center.
Though almost from its founding Cornell’s student body has included persons of color, significant population increase among all minorities began in the late 1950s. The first international student, from Germany, enrolled in 1882, and since that time students from many different nations have added their experiences to the Cornell community. Minority and feminist scholarship have taken their places in the regular curriculum with the establishment of women’s studies (as a program in 1984, as a major in 1988) and ethnic studies (as a program in 1992, as a major in 2003).
The college now offers more than 50 majors and preprofessional programs as well as an interdisciplinary major designed by the student to meet specific goals and interests.
The Delta of Iowa Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest national honorary society, was chartered at Cornell in 1923. Since 1953 the Coe and Cornell chapters have celebrated their initiations as a joint banquet, the only two of the more than 300 chapters in the country to do so.
In 1978 Cornell became the second college in the country to offer the block plan, known at Cornell as One-Course-At-A-Time. Under this academic calendar, students pursue in-depth a single subject for 3 1/ 2 weeks and then have a 4 1/ 2-day break before beginning their next class. The calendar offers focus and flexibility, including an array of off-campus study programs, internships, and field trips. More than half of Cornell students graduate with two or more majors.