As a doctoral student in physics at Cornell University, Zach Huber often has his brain running in high gear.
However, Huber’s rigorous academic life doesn’t occur at the expense of his Catholic faith. If anything, the two priorities might even complement each other.
Huber, 25, serves as Cornell’s second-year chapter president of the Thomistic Institute — an intellectual coalition that seeks to promote Catholic truth in contemporary college settings based on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Huber also is a leader of Cornell Catholic Community’s graduate and professional student group, and a participant in the newly founded COLLIS Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture at the university.
“I do physics on a daily basis but am interested in all these other things, religion and philosophy. It is very, very nice to have space on campus where I can engage with that side of myself,” said Huber, who also serves as a volunteer catechist at Ithaca’s Immaculate Conception Parish.
Cornell group strives to keep 13th-century saint relevant
Founded in 2009, the Thomistic Institute has grown into a coalition of more than 80 student-run campus academic clubs in the United States, England and Ireland. In his duties with the Cornell chapter, Huber said he seeks to establish “a real engagement between the modern university and Thomas Aquinas.”
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) is renowned as one of the greatest theologians and philosophers in Catholic Church history and one of only 37 people in history to attain the title of Doctor of the Universal Church.
“At many universities, the great saints aren’t taught in the classroom, aren’t taken seriously by more secular professors. (The Thomistic Institute) is an opportunity for us to present the richness of the Catholic tradition, to say these things do still have a relevance,” Huber explained.
A top priority for Huber and his Thomistic Institute cohorts is to organize two on-campus lectures each semester that are open to the public. Recently, the Cornell chapter hosted a pair of prolific philosophy professors: Marie George from St. John’s University in New York City, who spoke Sept. 14 on “What is a Soul?”; and Joshua Hochschild from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, who lectured Oct. 25 on “What Does It Mean to Think?”
Huber noted that Cornell’s Thomistic Institute also features a reading and discussion group as well as various online offerings.
Student values faith and community in his Ithaca setting
Huber, who is in the fourth year of a six-year doctoral program, is scheduled to receive his degree in spring 2025 and is considering a career in research or teaching. He said that an active faith life helps him cope with the pressures of an Ivy League educational setting.
“There are times where things are incredibly busy and stressful,” he acknowledged. “It’s certainly difficult at times for many of us. But we find that our faith is important to us — that we make our relationships with God a priority, going to Mass and prayer (events), making sure we are keeping that a part of our lives. It is really liberating.”
Huber, a native of Cincinnati, Ohio, received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame. He joined the Thomistic Institute during his first year at Cornell, crediting the influence of Carmen Khoo — former secretary of the institute — who passed away from cancer on Oct. 28, 2022, at age 28.
“Carmen was a very wonderful person. She was someone who helped me to get involved in a lot of (Catholic) things,” he recalled. “It was so clear that her faith was at the center of her life.”
During his time in Ithaca, Huber has grown close with many fellow Catholics through their dedication to the faith.
“The community we find is incredibly valuable and can certainly help us to enjoy the experience here (at Cornell) much more and help us through difficult times. They’re people who become close friends,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: “Profiles in Faith” highlights Catholics in the Diocese of Rochester of all ages and walks of life who are role models for living the faith. To suggest someone to profile, email Newsroom@CatholicCourier.com.Tags: Newman Community, Profiles in Faith, Tompkins County News