Cameron Pollack/Sun File Photo

The Office of Engagement Initiatives and the Public Service Center have both operated out of Kennedy Hall for more than five years.

June 24, 2021

Office of Engagement Initiatives and Public Service Center to Form New Community Engagement Center

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After more than five years of working side by side in Kennedy Hall, the Office of Engagement Initiatives and the Public Service Center will merge into one center. 

Starting July 1, the OEI, which has an academic focus, and the PSC, which offers co-curricular service opportunities, will join forces — a move the University made to streamline opportunities for students and community members. The new center will combine programs that offer academic credit for public service work with service work outside the classroom, including through student organizations. 

“You should be able to come and say, ‘Hey, I want to get involved in doing something for the good of the community. What options do you have?’” said Krista Saleet, director of the current PSC and future deputy director of the new center.

Saleet said she hopes the integration cuts down on duplicated efforts, making it easier to allocate resources and work directly with community partners. 

The PSC is approaching its 30-year anniversary and currently works with about 300 organizations, according to Saleet. The OEI is newer, founded about six years ago. It has about 500 partners through its programs that fund student and faculty projects, but some overlap with the PSC, according to Basil Safi, director of the OEI and future director of the new center.

“If you treat this as two different approaches, you actually miss this really nice legacy of the Public Service Center,” Safi said. “They’ve been doing this a lot longer than we have.”

According to Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life and a joint overseer of the new center, the change reflects community engagement models at some of Cornell’s peer institutions. He said there are no plans to cut staff during Cornell’s merger. 

Lombardi told The Sun he witnessed a similar community service center integration and “engage” program while working at Duke University in the early 2000s. 

The change also reflects student demand, according to Prof. Katherine McComas Ph.D. ’00, communication, the vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs and a joint overseer of the new center. 

In 2020, 54 percent of Cornell undergraduate admits rated public engagement opportunities “very important” in their college decision making, according to data shared by McComas. 

McComas said she hopes the integrated center bridges the gap between classroom and wider world, including through local nonprofits. As a professor of communication at Cornell, she has experience teaching community-engaged learning courses. One course she taught worked to raise awareness about hydrilla, a local invasive plant species.

“I had students and took them out on the floating classroom on Cayuga Lake,” McComas said. “They write back to me and say that was a course they remember more than anything else.”

In the 2020 academic year, Cornell offered 268 community engaged learning courses through OEI, according to Safi. In the Class of 2021, 47 percent of undergraduates took at least one engaged learning course. 

Outside academics, the PSC organizes programs like Pre-Orientation Service Trips and Upward Bound to support local high school students. The center currently includes about 25 student-led service organizations, according to Saleet. 

Patrick Mehler ’23, president of Cornell Votes, a student organization in the PSC that encourages voter participation on campus, said he wants the new center to continue to support student organizations like his while continuing to give them some autonomy.

“The purpose of the PSC and OEI is to help the community, but it is also to develop students  and have students mature and become civically engaged and become citizens in their communities,” Mehler said. “That can’t happen unless you’re giving them leadership, and you’re giving them control to run programs and projects and run organizations.”

Saleet, who directs the PSC, said there haven’t been detailed budgetary decisions about funding for student organizations, but said she wants to better coordinate the work of new organizations to avoid overlap with groups that are already part of the center.

Cornell will name the new center after David Einhorn ’91, whose foundation the Einhorn Collaborative partially endows the new center — but the naming won’t happen until the 2021-2022 academic year.  

Though the new center will launch July 1, the merger will happen gradually, and Lombardi said students or faculty shouldn’t experience major changes immediately. 

“The message we’ve given to the team is, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’” Lombardi said.