Courtesy of Cornell University

Although the Engaged Cornell Hub in Kennedy Hall is currently not being used in-person, the Office of Engagement Initiatives has brought its services online.

November 20, 2020

Cornell Service Centers Adapt to Virtual Environment

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With hundreds of community service organizations on Cornell’s campus, many students will partake in some form of service during their time at Cornell. 

For students involved with Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives, and for members of one or more of Cornell’s many service associations, service is an integral aspect of everyday life. 

However, these organizations have altered their typical ways of doing service in the face of the pandemic. That hashat meant redirecting funds to allow students to help their local communities in some instances, and connecting their members with virtual service opportunities in others.

The engagement office’s goal is to support and provide resources for community-engaged learning, in which students work on projects to address specific community needs and create a lasting change. The office supports community-engaged learning through grants, workshops, leadership training programs and more. 

Joy Das is the office’s Program Manager for Student Leadership. She oversees  community-engaged learning initiatives for students in cooperation with Engaged Ambassadors, an organization that mentors students interested in community leadership. This is Das’ third year serving in this position, and she has played a central role in helping students adapt to a virtual reality.  

Das said when the pandemic hit, many students had to reevaluate their summer plans. As a solution, the Office of Engagement Initiatives decided, for the first time ever, to offer virtual programming. Some of the programs offered were the Serve in Place Fund — which replaced the Community Engaged Travel Grant of prior years — providing students with grants to work on projects in their home communities. 

Das said the initiatives were meant to encourage students to serve locally — either in their hometowns or in Ithaca — as opposed to the international service usually funded by the travel grant.  

Some students developed initiatives specifically in response to the pressures associated with COVID-19. Grace Zhang ’23 provided labor and supplies to help St. Marianne’s Charity Boutique reopen before the end of the summer. Zhang ended up achieving this goal four weeks ahead of schedule. 

Another group of Cornellians bought food from Asian restaurants to donate to health care workers.  

To highlight students’ innovative service engagements, the engagement office compiled the Community Engagement Showcase 2020, to celebrate the students’ initiatives,” according to the office’s website. Initiatives focused on a range of causes such as art, photography, creative production, environmental sustainability, youth development and public health.     

Ezinwa Osuoha ’22 is an Engaged Ambassador on the outreach team of the OEI. She spent much of her summer reading applications for the Serve in Place Fund.  

Ezinwa said the shift to virtual service made students “more aware that there are different ways to get involved.” She added that the pandemic made people more involved in service because “you can do it from your room” whether through taking photos, writing blogs or online tutoring. 

The OEI isn’t the only group on campus keeping Cornellians engaged in community service.   

Charu Murugesan ’22 is the Vice President of Service for Alpha Phi Omega, a popular service fraternity and the largest service organization on campus. She said there has been a noticeable shift toward “service-learning events where it is more about educating yourself [and] changing your outlook.” 

Murugesan also said learning at events focused on social justice and disseminating that knowledge is an act of service. 

For members in the community service fraternity, virtual engagement has also opened the door to asynchronous virtual service, increasing accessibility, especially for students in different time zones.  Another event, “Therapy Through Music,” allows students to send in videos of themselves singing or reading to play at a local senior center.  

Ultimately Murugesan believed that while virtual service may seem daunting at first, it remains both necessary and meaningful.