November 16, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Engaging the Cornell Community Off Campus

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We are constantly complaining about living in Ithaca. Whether it’s because of the hills, the cold or the bizarre mixed form of precipitation that we have to walk through on the way to class, perhaps these complaints are warranted.

We often can get caught up in the complaining, rather than working together constructively to improve the community around us. In a world of prelims, papers, projects and never ceasing deadlines, who actually has time to care? It’s hard enough to truly be an active citizen within the Cornell bubble, let alone to venture outside of it.  I understand that we are all busy, and none of us have lots of time to spare, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do our best.

This is a call to action, because during our time on the Hill, we affect others in the community more than we realize. And they make an impact on our lives, too. I’m not here to tell you what to believe about Cornell, the institution or students’ relationships with the community. What I can advocate for is that we all should attempt to contribute.

Just as much as students hate living in “the middle of nowhere,” or lament the existence of “townies,” the locals should be frustrated with us, too. We trash the streets of Collegetown, raise the price of rent and carelessly demand chain businesses that drive out local companies. We argue that our freshmen deserve free TCAT passes but often forget that many of the thousands of Cornell’s employees, who simply can’t afford to live in Ithaca, commute by TCAT every day. Who is to say that the next time Cornell finds itself in a deficit that these people won’t lose their way to work, to our benefit?

Small efforts, such as the Be Engaged and Responsible Walk (also known as the BEaR Walk) hosted by Cornell administrators and city officials this past August, attempt to reconcile the broken relationship that exists between students and residents. Efforts such as this one can never be successful until we all start being better neighbors and caring about how we affect the people around us. Knocking on doors and meeting our neighbors may cause positive behavioral changes for the relatively few students who choose to participate. The problem is that so few people care enough to make that initial step.

That is not to say the relationships are all bad. Seventeen percent of students from the Class of 2013 remained in Tompkins county after graduation, according to the Economic Impact Report released by the Office of Budget and Planning earlier this year. As Graduate-Professional Student-Elected Trustee Annie O’Toole grad eloquently stated in her column last week, Cornell has a huge, and largely positive, economic impact in the region. Cornell’s vision as a land-grant institution reaches far beyond economics, though: According to the Cooperative Extension website, over 170 faculty collaborate with 500 local educators to improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, and people across the globe. One quick Google search could show you that Ithaca is one of the top 10 smartest, most walkable or — simply put — best college towns in the country. The point I am making here is not that we should disregard all of these positive aspects of Cornell’s symbiotic relationship with Ithaca. Rather, I am asking that as students we take time out of our hectic lives to ask ourselves: What can we do to make the community better?

On a daily basis, we can be better neighbors. This requires minimal time and effort, and could range from lowering our music on weeknights to respect families nearby, keeping the streets clean or by supporting local businesses. Volunteering at local organizations — such as Loaves and Fishes or the Greater Ithaca Activities Center — are easy ways to exit the Cornell bubble, however temporarily, and contribute to the community in a tangible way. Because we are here for a limited amount of time, it is often hard to become involved and recognize Ithaca as our home. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about what is happening around us by staying involved in local politics, attending a Common Council meeting every once in a while or by registering to vote in the city. While I understand this isn’t for everyone, it is something to consider.

Throughout my time on the Student Assembly, we have tried to find ways to get students involved in the community both on and off campus — some with success, but many with failure. This year, we are trying to give students an effective way to voice their concerns and ask the questions they need the answers to. While every Student Assembly Meeting is open to the public, all students are encouraged to attend this week: On Thursday afternoon in Willard Straight Hall, the S.A.will be hosting its first Forum. The theme of the Forum is “Enhancing the Lines of Communication: Cornell and Its Greater Community,” and we hope that this will encourage more students to get involved in the discussion of town-gown relations.

We are co-sponsoring with Coffee Hour, Cornell Democrats, Cornell Republicans, Cornell Roosevelt Institute, Cornell Public Affairs Society, Residential Student Congress, COLA and Save the Pass. The Cornell Forensics Society will be moderating. The Forum will feature a panel of Cornell administrators and city officials from the Ithaca Common Council, the Tompkins County Worker Center, Rev Center for Economic Development, the Office of University Relations, and the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, who will be able to answer your questions about Cornell and Ithaca at large.

I hope to see you there, but, more importantly, I hope that you can find the time to leave Ithaca a better place than you found it.

Sarah Balik is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and president of the Student Assembly. She can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.