November 8, 2018

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Continuing our Civic Engagement

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This week, domestic Cornell students had the opportunity to participate in the Midterm Elections. The interest surrounding this year’s election cycle on campus was palpable. In the past few months, I’ve seen students organize voter registration drive after voter registration drive. Others spent time collating resources so that every eligible student would be able to easily find and travel to their polling place. My social media feed the day of was filled not only with students exercising their right to vote but also with post after post encouraging others to exercise their right as well.

While the energy surrounding election is still strong, we should remember that voting is only one way in which Cornell students can engage at a local, state and national level. Voting during election day may seem like the most impactful way to make our voices heard, but there are a variety of ways in which students can impact the wellbeing of our country. Local civic engagement is one of the largest, most immediate ways Cornell students can make a difference, while state and national opportunities can connect students to a network of individuals across the country working to enact change.

Public service and engagement is intimately linked to Cornell’s history as a Land Grant institution. This is clearly delineated in our University Mission. It states that “Cornell also aims, through public service, to enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of New York, and others around the world.” Our commitment to helping students, faculty and staff live up to this ideal is strong, with a variety of institutional resources in place to connect community members to civic engagement opportunities.

Into the Streets, an annual service event that works with over 40 different local, non-profit organizations in Tompkins County, connected over 500 students and faculty during this year’s event on October 27. The upcoming Cornell Cares Day, scheduled for Saturday, January 5, 2019, is a worldwide student-alumni service event that provides service opportunities for students in their hometowns while they are there over winter break. Engaged Cornell and the Cornell Public Service Center work tirelessly to connect students, faculty and staff with community partners in order to tackle complex local, national and global issues.

These engagement programs continue to have real impacts on the community. The Cornell Prison Education Program is part of a regional collaboration that brings together Cornell faculty and graduate students in order to provide free college-level liberal arts curriculum to a select group of inmates at Correctional Facilities in upstate New York. These credits can then be applied toward an associates degree from Cayuga Community College. This program relies on faculty and student volunteers in order to fulfil its mission. The Graduate Student School Outreach Program, GRASSHOPR, pairs graduate students with teachers in Tompkins County to create mini-courses aimed at introducing K-12 students to new and exciting topics.

These are just two examples of engagement opportunities that are directly transforming the lives of not only local community members but also the students that participate in these programs. Civic engagement and public service come in a variety of shapes, forms and time commitments. If you have not yet found a program that fits your interests and your availabilities, I strongly recommend browsing the multitude of programs Cornell either organizes or promotes. The Cornell Public Service Center compiles multiple lists for students to peruse that highlight both student-led service initiatives and opportunities beyond Ithaca.

The reality, however, is that it is easy to forget about public service. For most students, our calendar is packed to the brim with academic and professional responsibilities. Finding time to add another responsibility to our workload, without overloading ourselves, can be difficult. However, I firmly believe that participating in public service should be a priority, not just in pursuit of our mission as Cornell University community members, but also as students who value higher education. There is a very real public perception that the value of a college education and of higher education in general is decreasing. Civic engagement provides us a direct opportunity to contradict that narrative. It allows us, as Cornellians, to highlight the value of our academic work and the direct impact both it and we can have on transforming communities.

This past year, the Office of Engagement Initiatives awarded nearly $840,000 to 21 teams of faculty and community partners to help integrate community engagement into curriculum across the university. It is up to us as students to take these courses and to commit to using that knowledge to assist our local, national and global communities. The opportunities for civic engagement are there. It is now up to us to figure out how we can best contribute.
Manisha Munasinghe is the graduate and professional student-elected member of the Board of Trustees, and a PhD candidate at Cornell University. Trustee Viewpoint runs every other week this semester. Munasinghe can be reached at mmunasinghe@cornellsun.com.