I grew up in an affluent suburb, in a high-achieving public high school. Like many of my classmates, I worked hard to rise to an aggressive set of ambitions. I had a 4.0 GPA, I had five 5′s on AP exams by September of senior year, I was the captain of the swim team, I was the VP of the debate team. I wanted to be a top-notch architect, and I felt it was best to learn structural engineering first. Unlike most of my classmates, I was unimpressed with the Ivy League, MIT, and other big-name schools that seemed to charge undergraduates a fortune for a fancy diploma and the opportunity to struggle to pull a professor away from research. I wanted a school where professors were interested in teaching and in building things, and I wanted to be able to pay for graduate school when I got out. I sent applications to the best public university engineering programs, and I focused on Cooper Union.
I knew about Cooper because Gabriel Abrantes had gone there. Gabriel was fun, he was unconventional, and he was the best artist I had ever known. It was obvious that Cooper was a school for the brightest students, and I had heard from Gabriel that it was free.
Cooper Union was intimidating. I walked into the Great Hall for the open house, and the dismissive confidence I felt toward every other college on the planet vanished between those awesome columns. I felt immediately that this space was extraordinary. Here was a school that defied the way higher education is done, and excelled. It radiated a sense of rebellious genius that was beautiful, inspiring, and just a little bit crazy. I was terrified, but excited enough that I actually enjoyed pouring my heart into my application essays.
I came to Cooper confident that I had earned my spot, and that I would be surrounded by the most amazing people I would meet. I was right. My classmates came from all over the world, from every background. My girlfriend was the first person in her family to attend college. One of my roommates was from a low-income community in Florida, another from an ultra-wealthy family in Lebanon. We were from such completely different places, and yet we were all peers, because we were there. No one got a shoe-in or a hand up to attend Cooper. We had all earned our keep, and that assurance reverberated through all our interactions.
Cooper nurtured me into the person I am today. A class called “Water in the City,” alerted me to the challenges our world faces in water and sanitation, but also the beauty and potential of new, unconventional solutions. I worked with art and architecture students to design a rainwater harvesting system for the Children’s Garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I took a job with the class’ professor, Franco Montalto (CE’ 95), and helped lead a participatory planning process in Red Hook for a community farm. I leveraged engineering to accomplish so much more than build buildings or design pumps and runways- I used it to help change the way society works, to turn wastes and problems into assets that people can wield to improve their livelihoods. It’s a style of environmental engineering that I found at Cooper, and I’m making a career out of it.
Cooper gave me the tools to excel in my career. I learned to write and edit at the writing center with Gwen Hyman and Peter Buckley. The exercise helped me earn a Fulbright Scholarship to build wastewater treatment systems in Panama. I obtained two other scholarships that fund my PhD studies at Stanford. Here I spend my days hammering toward the world that should exist. There are over 2 billion people without basic sanitation on this planet, and a billion without basic access to water. There are more than a billion people living in urban slums, and that number is growing. With my roommate, I convinced the Gates Foundation to fund our idea to reinvent sanitation services in Haitian slums. I’m writing this letter at midnight from a rooftop in Port-au-Prince.
At Cooper, we often heard Peter Cooper’s mandate that education should be as “Free as Air and Water.” It’s a beautiful and powerful vision, but in my profession I feel the challenges in this aspiration. Water may be free, but someone has to pay for the pipes that convey it. Knowledge may be free with an internet connection, but someone has to keep the lights on in the building. At Stanford, students pay for the privilege of learning. At Cooper, I simply cherished the privilege of learning. Education is an investment. At most institutions in the US, the student makes the investment, and should rightly expect the yields of that investment to accrue to him or her. At Cooper, society invests in the student. I work every day to compound the returns on the bet society placed on me.
I love Cooper Union. I learned so much there- in classrooms with professors, in student council meetings with administrators, on the tennis courts with Dean Baker and my teammates, and in so many places with my amazing classmates- I can’t imagine a place on earth that could provide as great an education as Cooper does. And yet, I know that I wouldn’t have attended without the full tuition scholarship. Even with that scholarship, Cooper Union was the most expensive college I considered attending. I had full scholarship offers at other great schools, and I know many of my Cooper classmates did too. Cooper Union can’t be just another big-name school with tuition. I went to Cooper because it offers a stellar, affordable education, and because of that thrill I felt when I sat in the Great Hall. I went to Cooper because it is unique, unique because of the community of stellar peers it nurtures through its blanket full-tuition merit scholarship.
Sebastien is a Belgian-American born in Washington D.C. After Cooper, he spent 3 years in Panama designing and building energy-producing sanitation systems in rural communities. Sebastien is a Ph.D. student of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University. He received a Fulbright Scholarship to work in Panama, and his research at Stanford is funded by a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship and an EPA STAR Fellowship. He is currently working to develop a portable, low-cost latrine system to enable new sanitation service models in urban slums with a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His overarching passion is to transform society’s waste streams from liabilities into resources for social, environmental, and economic good.