For many of us, the next several weeks will be a time of looking outward, of giving; a time when we might remember our friends and colleagues with special gifts. It is also a time to redouble our efforts to lighten the burdens of others in our communities and around the world, a mission which many of you pursue every day. One of the things that I’ve discovered about Cornell is that the spirit of giving extends beyond the present season. As a community as well as individually, you have lived the letter and the spirit of our land grant mission for nearly a century and a half, and reached out to help others through philanthropy and volunteerism.
Today, our neighbors, whether in Tompkins County or sub-Saharan Africa, need our help more than ever, and I write to urge all of us to volunteer our time and donate resources to make a difference in the world. Let me share a few examples of ways through which you can become involved.
For leadership in finding concrete ways to help our neighbors, we need look no farther than to Cornell students, who have long incorporated public service into their lives. For 15 years, the Cornell Public Service Center’s student-led Into the Streets program has allowed Cornell students to learn about the local community while spending a day performing needed services. Alpha Tau Omega’s Daffodil Day sales benefit the American Cancer Society, members of Pi Beta Phi’s Glamour Gals chapter visit nursing homes to provide personal care services to residents, and many other Greek organizations participate in activities that benefit the wider community. Cornell athletes read to children in the local schools through the Big Red Readers program. The Up ‘Til Dawn effort involves Cornell students raising funds for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.
The Graduate Student Outreach Project offers mini-courses in local elementary, middle and high schools and, every Saturday, medical students and physicians from Weill-Cornell Medical College run the Weill Cornell Community Clinic to provide basic medical services and referrals to uninsured city residents who cannot afford to pay for care. In addition, students at Weill Cornell Medical College run Camp Phoenix, a free program for children ages 7-12 who have been treated at the Hearst Burn Center of New York-Presbyterian Hospital that culminates in a weekend at an overnight camp.
The student-led Alternative Breaks, another Public Service Center program, has grown from a single team of 13 students who worked in rural West Virginia in 1989 to a program that last year involved more than 100 students who worked on 12 projects nationally and internationally. Last year, for example, Cornell’s Black Students United sent 28 members to participate in the national “Katrina on the Ground” spring break initiative to help with rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. For spring break 2007, teams of students will participate in service-learning projects that address urban poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, domestic violence, homelessness, civil rights, HIV/AIDS, farm workers, youth and environmental damage in locations that include Boston, Cape Cod, Lake Placid, New York City, Philadelphia and rural West Virginia.
Cornell’s Public Service Center embraces service learning as an educational philosophy while working to connect students, faculty and alumni with community organizations. It currently supports more than 50 service learning courses, which range from the Hotel School’s course, “Housing and Feeding the Homeless,” to City and Regional Planning’s “Community Service Fieldwork.”
Each summer, undergraduate and graduate students confront issues facing low-income families and children in New York City through the Urban Scholars Program while Human Ecology’s Urban Semester enables students to spend a semester in New York City learning about multicultural issues and urban affairs, performing community service and participating in an internship.
In the College of Engineering, students and instructors were recognized earlier this fall by Engineers for a Sustainable World (a national organization founded at Cornell five years ago) for working with partners in Honduras to build drinking water treatment plants in rural areas. In this multi-year project, students research and design the systems, then teach local residents how to build and operate them — and their challenges, including creating systems that require no electricity, can be built with local materials and will cost less than $10 per person.
Cornell faculty and staff also carry forward the spirit of giving through their donations of time and resources. Cornell is traditionally the largest contributor to the Tompkins County United Way campaign, thanks to a well-organized and effective volunteer leadership team and generous donors. Contributions to the United Way help some 44 community organizations to stem hunger, support children’s health care, counsel teenagers in need, improve the lives of seniors and meet other community needs.
Faculty, staff and students teamed up earlier this fall for the 14th annual “Share the Warmth” campaign to collect warm clothing and blankets for those who lack these essentials, and Cornell retirees work in the local schools through the Cornell Retirees in Volunteer Service program. The Cornell Police brightens the holidays for local children through the Toys for Tots Program.
Staff members in my office and elsewhere on campus participate in the Elves Program to provide gifts and clothing for children as recommended by local schools. The Elves work with 25 schools and programs and hope to equal last year’s record of helping 600 very needy boys and girls in Tompkins and neighboring counties.
It is hard to capture, in these few lines, the true extent of the Cornell community’s commitment to public service and to the betterment of life at home and abroad. Many other members of the Cornell community donate their time to local and national service organizations and provide leadership on non-profit boards. This generosity, which flows throughout the year and with special force during the winter holidays, is heartening and inspiring, and makes me proud to be a part of Cornell.
We are privileged on this campus. Private and public resources are entrusted to us with the expectation that through our teaching, research and service we will make a difference in our community and around the world. I am counting on working shoulder-to-shoulder with all members of the campus to build on that foundation. Thank you for all you do, join me in doing even more, and have a great winter break.
David J. Skorton is the President of Cornell University. He can be reached at email@example.com. From David appears every month.