Dear guy who burned his Cornell degree,

April 8, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Dear guy who burned his Cornell degree to prove where I go to school doesn’t matter,

You don’t know me, but you reached out to The Daily for coverage, and all our real reporters must have been too busy because they asked me to do it.

To start off, I’d like to applaud your courage in posting the video that shows you putting your diploma on a tripod and reducing it to ashes with a Boring Company flamethrower. I have to admit I’m envious of your choice of tools. If I ever did want to make a show of burning something, that would definitely be the way to go. I also tip my hat to you for running a successful YouTube channel, where people seem to be inspired by your approach to studying and practicing medicine. I can relate to your experiences in a small way, having served as a Navy medic for some time. I was nowhere near the level of care that you are, of course, but I admire your perseverance in completing medical school and the patience I assume you have in dealing with your patients.

Regarding this video in particular, I would like to say I understand your sentiment in theatrically destroying your Ivy League degree to prove a point, but to be honest, I don’t. When I received my Associate of Arts from Coastline Community College, I immediately framed it and put it on display. You see, as a part-time student while on active duty, I only had nights and weekends to pursue my education. There was no support from teacher’s assistants, office hours or study groups. When it was finally completed, I was 27 years old, and it was the first higher education diploma I had earned. Now, even though I’ve transferred to Stanford, I still keep that AA diploma in a safe place because I respect what it represents.

To me, a letter of recommendation, acceptance or diploma is a written certification by someone that they believe I might be worth something. I do not take lightly the trust those people — like the admissions officers — have shown me. I’ve made the mistake of breaking that trust before.

You mention that you denigrate your degree because it wasn’t until after Cornell, while working for the National Institute of Health, that you learned “nothing was guaranteed” to you. While I appreciate the significance of the realization, I’m sorry to hear it took so long. If only you had joined the Marine Corps, you could have learned that fact in about three minutes. As far as the degree itself, I must be missing something on how they work — I blame my plebeian origins. In the video you say you destroyed your “only copy,” but that was just your diploma. Unless you actually got your degree revoked with the institution, I think all you did was burn a pretty wall decoration.

On that note, you’re right that you don’t need an Ivy League education to perform proper CPR, but you mention that you spent six hours a day for months slaving away in order to study it. That’s unfortunate. If only you had joined the Navy, you could have learned chest compressions in about three hours.

I also couldn’t help but notice that you bought a very nice flamethrower, have a fancy flat screen TV and burned the diploma in the driveway of a two-car garage that I can only assume is yours. All of these were likely paid for with money you made from the doctor position that your ash-reduced Cornell degree helped you get. This is something I cannot relate to. You see, even though I was kicked out of the Navy after my ten years of service for mistakes that I completely own, I have deep appreciation for the institution and the people who still serve there. I know from personal experience that the Navy is full of corruption, hypocrisy and bureaucracy, and I should have every reason to be bitter. But if I disillusion myself from the kaleidoscopic notion that everything should be perfect, what I see instead are countless people working hard and sacrificing their lives to keep us safe, allowing you and me to attend college and discuss our opinions of it.

Speaking of hard work, it’s encouraging to hear that a doctor knows the importance of being on time and working hard, but again, you didn’t need to go to medical school for that. If only you had joined the Army, they would have drilled that into you in about three days.

You say that when it came time to save the patient’s life, your degree didn’t matter, but the only reason you were there in the first place is because you had it. Sure, nobody’s checking your wall for diplomas while you’re performing CPR, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone to let you operate on them based purely on hard work and punctuality at a Starbucks job. “Hard work, passion and persistence” are great, but they mean nothing if they don’t produce results. You can’t live off even the purest and most nutrient rich dirt unless a tree grows from it and bears fruit. You also complained that your “entire body was exhausted” after working four consecutive night shifts. I’m sorry to hear that. If only you had joined the Air Force, you would have fit right in.

Finally, to the subject of prestige. This is something you and I may never see eye to eye on, but I’ll try my best to explain. To me, prestige means proving to the world that you’re capable of something, possibly more than they expect. You see, I am an immigrant to the United States. I come from humble origins, brought nothing with me and have no name or background to speak of. Because of this, my Stanford degree will not be something for me to “shove in people’s faces” the way you alluded to doing in the past, but a manifestation of thirty years of my hard work, passion and persistence.

For me and my Stanford classmates, especially the ones from low-prestige backgrounds, this degree is our first step in showing the world that we are capable of more than it expects of us. It’s not to say that there aren’t countless other ways to be successful and prove ourselves, but this is our way. I won’t let you besmirch it for the sake of a few extra views and likes on your channel.

You say you burned your degree to show prestige doesn’t matter, but then you bring up Steve Jobs and Abraham Lincoln as examples. In case you’re struggling to find more let me give you a few: Michael Faraday, Pablo Picasso, Eminem. Yes, they changed the world without degrees, but make no mistake, they all have metric fuck-tons of prestige.

I also can’t help but notice that you timed this perfectly to capitalize on the recent college admissions scandals and mental health concerns. That just comes across as a cheap shot. Again, yes, there is corruption. Yes, the environment can be stressful and unforgiving. Yes, one suicide is one too many. But just as an imperfect Navy is still a necessary bulwark against the storms of international tumult, even an imperfect university is an indispensable lighthouse beacon in the darkness of illiteracy.

Now, you might want to tell me that I’m missing the point. All you were trying to say was that a piece of paper with your name on it shouldn’t matter when it comes to your self-worth. But even to that point, I disagree. As soon as we step outside of our own narcissistic self-evaluations and honestly ask what we can offer the world, we find that everything matters. Our accomplishments and our failures matter. The friends who vouch for us and the enemies who mock us matter. The way we step outside on a cold, rainy day matters. The clothes we wear, the way we stand, the way we shake hands and look people in the eyes – all of it matters. The way we do anything is the way we do everything, and all we are is what we can show the world.


A guy who’s extremely grateful to be at Stanford.

P.S. I’m just playing, Air Force, you know I love you.

Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’

Nestor was born in Bangladesh, raised in Greece, and served 10 years in the U.S. Navy. He studied math as an undergraduate, and now studies applied mathematics and oceans as a master's student at Stanford.

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