Cornell doesn’t care about its undergraduates. I’ve heard this time and time again, and with the recent reimagining cuts in Cornell Cinema, SAFE, and language programs, it seems truer than ever. But, at least according to Provost Fuchs and President Skorton, the process of Reimagining Cornell doesn’t need to be all bad. It presents an opportunity to evaluate the current situation at the University and reshape it to better suit where we are and steer toward where we are headed. As students, we are here for an education that will transform us into the leaders of tomorrow. In light of this, I think Cornell needs to consider increasing institutional support for service learning in order to improve the student experience.
In just over two years I have learned a great deal here on East Hill, but surprisingly much of it has not come from within the classroom. On top of improved study skills, an understanding of biology and a diploma, I will leave Cornell with invaluable knowledge and experience from my work with the student organization Partnership for Honduran Health (P4HH) and the non-profit Salud Juntos. P4HH has introduced me to a different type of learning, a new educational ideology and a way to frame the world.
This is service learning.
Service learning is a teaching philosophy that combines the academic classroom with community service. Students learn through the process of problem solving and reflect on their project every step of the way. Working on real problems like malaria or poverty with communities outside of the Cornell bubble is a very rewarding experience.
Educational theories back up the anecdotal evidence in favor of Service Learning. What I’ve experienced in classrooms at Cornell has consisted primarily of the “banking” approach to education, in which students are likened to empty vessels, waiting to be filled with information by teachers. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire discusses this technique and concludes that it is dehumanizing. Being an empty vessel for information is simply boring, especially when compared to what we see, do, and become in service learning projects. As an alternative, Freire proposes a problem-posing pedagogy, much like the progressive education ideas of John Dewey. Unfortunately, Cornell has yet to embrace this powerful new ideology as completely as it should.
Many civically engaged students, including myself and members of P4HH, regularly encounter unnecessary trouble navigating the Big Red Bureaucracy (BRB). This is why it seems, to me and many of my peers, that Cornell doesn’t care about its undergraduates. There have been some steps in the right direction. For example, the formation of The Global Health Department, programming in IARD, Engineers for a Sustainable World, and the Ashoka Initiative all provide valuable resources for service learning on campus. However, the unnecessary degree of decentralization regarding these service learning and international programs trumps much of this progress.
In the process of Reimagining, Cornell should consider President Skorton’s commitment to being ‘a land grant university to the world’. The numerous on-campus service learning programs, such as those of P4HH, Cover Africa, Bridges to Community, Aguaclara, CUSP (no longer funded), and many others are doing just that. Yet navigating the BRB for things like risk management, funding sources, faculty assistance and advising can be exceedingly difficult — and is only getting worse. We would like to have a manageable, transparent route to establish service learning preparatory and post-trip classes. My peers and many of the faculty involved with service learning agree that a Center for Civic Engagement or a Center for International Programming would cut departmental and college redundancies and costs, and drastically simplify the current fragmented system.
Cornell’s peer institutions have substantial institutional resources available to service learning groups. Yale’s Center for International Experience and Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships are great models that could be adopted by Cornell. It is time for the ‘vocational Ivy’ to live up to its name and provide some assistance to students who wish to engage in more problem-based, progressive learning. Improving service learning wouldn’t just better the student experience; it would provide a selling point to distinguish Cornell from its competitors.
These requests are simple, have been proven effective elsewhere, and would reduce costs for the university. If fulfilled, they would bring Cornell to its rightful place at the cutting edge of instruction. Cornell needs a center that would provide academic, institutional, and risk management support for service learning groups across all colleges and departments. I imagine a Cornell that is a beacon for dynamic, transformative education. I imagine a Cornell that stands apart in its commitment to serving the world, and by doing so, will serve its own students as well.
— Robin Bigelow '11