Cornell

Community-Engaged Learning Bridges Past and Future at Cornell

October
2016

These days, many universities incorporate community-engaged experiences into their curricula and cocurricula. At Cornell University, working with neighboring communities is not a novel concept; in fact, it’s been a part of the university’s mission since its founding as New York’s land-grant institution in 1865. A new program, Engaged Cornell, is focusing on bringing community-engaged experiences to a wide range of undergraduate students, updating the university’s longstanding commitment to community engagement for the twenty-first century.

“A Contemporary Vision for Public Engagement”

Engaged Cornell, an initiative to build courses and—more crucially—curricula that include a community engagement aspect, got its start in 2014 thanks to a $50 million grant from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust. But that’s the short version of the story. “It got started 150 years ago when we were founded, because we’re the land-grant institution for the state of New York,” says Judith Appleton, vice provost at Cornell. “This is a more purposeful way to involve students in that public engagement mission. It’s nothing new—a lot of the faculty here would give you the same response: ‘This is what we’ve always done.’”

The initiative “arose out of a multiyear planning process,” says Rebecca Stoltzfus, vice provost for undergraduate education at Cornell. During that planning process, the university was attempting to “articulate a new, contemporary vision for public engagement.” The result was Engaged Cornell, whose emphasis is described by the university as “innovation in teaching and learning through shared practices that connect students, faculty, and curricula with communities and the public realm across the globe.” The parameters of these opportunities for public engagement are deliberately broad; they may include undergraduate research, individual courses (listed in the course catalog as part of Engaged Cornell), or a larger course of study, such as a concentration or minor.

Building Community-Engaged Curricula

Engaged Cornell opportunities—which are supported by a variety of grants—exist across schools and disciplines. “Our approach has been to be very inclusive in our messaging about Engaged Cornell, saying that we welcome any discipline,” says Appleton. “The response that we’ve received has been a reflection of the creativity of the faculty. They imagine opportunities for students in their disciplines in ways no group of administrators could ever conceive on their own.” Proposals for Engaged Cornell have included a project that brought faculty and students together with members of the Haudenosaunee communities to work on the resurgence of the Tuscarora language; a proposal from the College of Engineering to work with a community in upstate New York interested in developing a wind farm; and a minor in the government department that is part of Cornell’s existing Prison Education Program, in which undergraduate students can assist in teaching courses to prison inmates in New York.  

Curriculum development is a key part of Engaged Cornell’s mission. “A real emphasis has been transforming curricula—thinking not at the level of the individual course but around minors and majors, and building community engagement into curriculum,” says Stoltzfus. Faculty members in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) are building a concentration focused on the social sector—concerned with work that occurs primarily in nonprofit organizations that focus on education, social justice, arts and culture, the environment, and other issues. The concentration will include an already-existing fellowship called The High Road Runs Through the City—a two-month summer program based in Buffalo that focuses on grassroots economic development. Students taking part in the High Road fellowship spend four days a week working with local organizations (affiliated with the Partnership for Public Good, a community-based think tank that works with Cornell’s ILR school), and come together for a course that meets every Friday. One of the goals of the course, says M. Diane Burton, associate professor of human resource studies, is “to build bridges, to see opportunities for cross-pollination and collaboration across the different organizations that all of the students are working with.”

The proposed concentration in social sector studies will incorporate the High Road fellowship and add to it both a prefellowship course about the history and culture of Buffalo and a postfellowship course on economic development; students will also receive academic credit by using their experience in the fellowship program as a case study in the postfellowship course. The new concentration represents an effort to “develop a pathway through existing courses and new courses that would prepare students to be leaders in the social/cultural sector,” says Burton. “Part of the curriculum has to be community-engaged learning.” Also included in the new curriculum will be a course entitled Introduction to Social Sector Studies, which will examine both large-scale topics such as homelessness, poverty, and income inequality and specific methods of tackling these issues through work in the social sector.

Planning for the Future

Although Cornell has no community-engaged-learning graduation requirement, faculty and administrators hope that Engaged Cornell will become an integral part of the undergraduate experience. “We want every Cornell student to have access to these opportunities, to be clear there are academic pathways,” says Stoltzfus. Beyond courses, research opportunities, and areas of academic concentration, Engaged Cornell also has an engaged student leadership component, which comprises several programs (including the Social Justice Roundtable, a monthly student meeting on the topic of engagement, and a Student Ambassadors program) that can culminate in a certificate in Engaged Leadership.

Many of those involved with Engaged Cornell hope that it will “stimulate thought within Cornell and beyond Cornell,” says Stoltzfus. “The goals are to institutionalize this,” she says. “We are already beginning to have a lot of focus on sustainability and sustainable financial models for these programs both on the curricular and cocurricular side.” She also notes that she hopes Engaged Cornell will serve as a model for other universities hoping to introduce or expand opportunities for community engagement. Appleton points to accessibility as a main goal of the program. “Something we’re very cognizant of as we look at opportunities across campus is to ensure that all of our students can participate in high-impact practices,” she says. Stoltzfus echoes this sentiment. “The long-term goal is to have significant, rigorous community-engaged learning opportunities available and accessible to every Cornell student in a way that’s relevant to his or her personal and professional and academic trajectory while at Cornell.”

Learn more about Engaged Cornell online, or visit AAC&U’s website for resources on civic learning and high-impact practices.