Last semester, my friend Evelyn Torres ’21 woke up at 6:30 a.m. every Wednesday to go to Belle Sherman Elementary School. There, she was a student teacher in a third-grade classroom for three hours as field work for Prof. Jeffrey Perry’s, developmental sociology, EDUC 2410: The Art of Teaching. Although I thought of the experience that prompted her tiredness later that day as a unique one among Cornell students, it turns out that there is a wide array of classes taught far above Cayuga’s waters that include in their curricula engagement in communities close to and far from the lake’s shores.
In CS 5150: Software Engineering, a group of students is working to gamify snow-shoveling so that city sidewalks aren’t impassable for pedestrians of all ages and abilities following snowstorms. This semester, a group of students in GOVT 3121: Crime and Punishment are beginning research with two Cornell professors and a colleague at Ithaca College on the challenges of re-entry faced by those who have intersected with the criminal justice system in Ithaca and Tompkins County. In DEA 2203: StudioShift and DEA 2500: The Environment and Social Behavior, students are collaborating with Tompkins County Action to design a living space for 18 to 25-year-olds who don’t have a safe place to stay at night. These are just a sampling of the various courses which make community engagement not just a supplement to the academic experience at Cornell, but an integral part of it.
And yet, there are still many syllabi, lecture halls and seminars where engagement is limited to the classroom. For every friend I have like Evelyn, I have many more whose academic experiences have been defined more by the spots they study than by interactions with people who don’t come to campus multiple days a week.
This is a shame because the real potential of community engagement lies in potential benefits for local stakeholders that can benefit from work with Cornell. With a population of around 30,000, Ithaca’s size means the efforts of the Cornell community can bring change across the entirety of the city and the even smaller towns that surround it. While schools in metropolitan areas throughout the country, especially our Ivy League compatriots, tout their connections to professional powerhouses in populated centers only found in such populated centers, Cornellians can jump into the trenches with Ithacans and other residents of Upstate New York to address the problems found here at a depth impossible to achieve in a city of hundreds of thousands or millions of people. This is especially important given the ubiquity of Ithaca’s challenges, with communities of all sizes across the country facing some of the same difficulties as those who can be seen from the top of the slope. If appropriately brought to bear upon the areas surrounding us, the resources of Cornell and the efforts of its community can help make Ithaca and Tompkins County into a model for the rest of America to follow.
Though Cornell’s academic connection with the world beyond East Hill is evolving, this change should occur at a higher pace and should be structured by the University to be more visible and longer-lasting.
Classes that involve community engagement focus on the practical elements of education which have been ingrained in Cornell since its chartering in 1865 as a land-grant institution. The University’s commitment to Ithaca was formalized a century later, when Cornell Ithaca Volunteers in Training and Service was established to connect members of the Cornell community interested in volunteering with organizations in surrounding communities. In 2014, more than two decades after the creation of the Public Service Center, the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust helped sharpen this focus on engagement through academia by funding the Center for Community Engaged Learning and Research. Five years ago, Cornell and the trust continued this commitment by launching Engaged Cornell, a 10-year initiative aimed at strengthening the interaction between academia and the needs of surrounding communities.
Engaged Cornell’s goals include fomenting the student body’s participation in the community during their time at Cornell and providing faculty and departments the tools to teach courses that involve such engagement. The support for this program is seen through the amount of financial muscle behind it and also by the approval and commitment of important stakeholders across Cornell. When the initiative was originally announced, The Sun’s editorial board praised the move as a natural extension of the University’s original mission. Three years later, President Martha Pollack said in her first State of the University address to the Board of Trustees that “engaged, evidence-based education that combines rigorous academics with experiential learning” was a central goal.
But despite this framework for support, many professors have never had any exposure to this kind of teaching in their own undergraduate or graduate education. In addition, a successful attempt at a course that implements engagement with community requires extensive planning, communication and outreach months before the course begins. Furthermore, in a profession where tenure means stability, there are some departments and professors within them where tenure affects the likelihood that a professor will put time toward such a course. The ambiguity of a project’s goal or its incompatibility with the University’s semester schedule can also cause frustration or stress for students as part of an otherwise-positive experience in an already stress-saturated environment.
From talking to faculty and students about these courses, though, it became clear to me that the challenges to implement engagement are more than worth the reward that awaits on the other side. In describing a visit to a colleague who was including engagement in his curriculum, Prof. Gary Evans, design and environmental analysis, was “envious of how motivated the students were in these design projects,” before partnering with that colleague for two decades on similar projects. Similarly, students mentioned that they not only enjoyed classes with engagement more than those without, but that having to apply their knowledge forced them to connect with what they had learned on a much deeper level than an exam or paper would have. More than three months after she finished a course that involved a community project, Senna Phillips ’20 said, “I still constantly think about that project and I still have reactions from that project that I lean on now.”
In regard to their own experiences, faculty described being conductors, not just an instructors, and taking inspiration from the energy and ingenuity with which students attacked the tasks they were given. This is not even to speak of the appreciation expressed by those community partners who are actually being engaged with.
In order to pick up the pace of community engagement, and to ensure that it doesn’t stop when the buck of the Einhorn family’s charity does, a few concrete steps can be taken. First of all, professors who are on the fence about creating such courses or haven’t even considered it should take the plunge. Given that the course roster for Fall 2019 is available this upcoming Friday, it may be too late for next semester, but there is definitely sufficient time to plan for Spring 2020. By reaching out to potential community stakeholders, talking to other professors who have undertaken such exploits before or may be interested in partnering and contacting Engaged Cornell to access the resources and networks they have, professors inexperienced in creating such curricula can start receiving advice today if they desire.
University administrators can immediately begin incorporating the goals of Engaged Cornell into the inner-workings of the University. Even though the goal of Engaged Cornell is to make community engagement a self-sustaining part of a Cornell education, it’s possible that without the thrust of this tailored initiative, faculty will begin to view undertaking such projects as a leap not worthy of the effort because there’s no institutional safety net.
Finally, stakeholders can address the one glaring flaw the initiative currently has which The Sun’s editorial board warned about in 2014: Engaging Cornell has not been a process that solicits the input of students enough. A number of my friends at the University of Virginia have told me that students there can apply to create “Student-Initiated Courses.” If approved, they design a curriculum and teach fellow students. Whether it’s a Google Form on the department or college website, a dedicated employee at each college or a line in a syllabus asking for ideas, administrators, colleges, departments and professors should get together to create a system that allows student and community input. Although the majority of suggestions will probably still come from face-to-face interactions, the potential value of bringing in ideas that a student has but doesn’t know how to voice is immeasurable. Engagement through the classroom empowers students, but students aren’t currently encouraged and empowered to start that new engagement themselves.
Even with this room for improvement, it’s clear that community engagement as part of academic curricula is taking hold at the University. In the 2018-2019 academic year, Engaged Cornell distributed funding for a total of 44 projects through the Engaged Opportunity and Engaged Curriculum Grants. Furthermore, while some departments such as DEA have a longstanding history of applying what they teach in the local community, that external ethos is starting to be externally visible: Recent faculty hires have cited Cornell’s focus on engagement as reasons for applying for positions here. Now, it’s time for the University to cement this progress. It’s time to take Engaged Cornell from an initiative and make it into a mantra.
Giancarlo Valdetaro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Far Above runs every other Tuesday this semester.