Engaged learning spotlight: connecting students to communities

Screen capture of students and faculty during a Zoom meeting.

For most people, 2020 led to less connection with others as people stayed apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For Tamar Kushnir, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, the pandemic provided inspiration to develop a safe way to connect undergraduate students with the Ithaca-area community.

For the first time this fall, she created a community engagement component to her introduction class, “Human Development: Infancy and Childhood,” that required students to connect with a local organization serving children and families. (Previously, the course was a standard lecture class.)

“From talking with students in March and April, I could tell they were eager to give back,” Kushnir said. “The events of the summer – including Black Lives Matter protests, the controversy over reopening schools, and the suffering of children and families – made the need even more urgent. I was inspired to find some way teach child development in a way that spoke to the current needs. So, you could say that thanks to the pandemic and the wave of social justice activism, this course happened a lot sooner than it would have otherwise.”

The community engagement portion of the class came in the form of a multi-step project analyzing local youth organizations, culminating in a final paper. The project encouraged students to find out how research and theory in child development gets applied in services offered to communities.

“The analysis focused the organization’s mission and values, their core intentions, their fiscal decisions and how the architecture of the organization plays out,” explained Sofia Urquiola HD ’22, a teaching assistant for the course. “We asked students to evaluate the success of each organization and provide details about how Cornell students could get involved.

“For many students, this was a really great way to break out of the Cornell bubble,” Urquiola said. “A lot them didn’t know these organizations existed. It’s hard not to be sucked into Cornell and remember there are other communities around us. This was a great way to show students the communities surrounding them.”

Students, many of whom were learning from home fall semester, learned about three area organizations through video interviews recorded by teaching assistants. A wide variety of organizations participated including mentoring programs, the local science center, the Ithaca Central School District and even a toy store. The teaching assistants initially planned to organize ways for students to volunteer with the organization they wrote about, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, they settled for engaging with organizations virtually.

Even virtually, the project helped students build connections, said teaching assistant Judy Liu, HD ’21. “Students said they were inspired to reach out and get involved in the future,” she said. “It was great to introduce them to these organizations that may enrich their student experience.”

Connecting students with the greater community is important, Kushnir said, because it helps them apply their knowledge to the world around them and connect with local communities.

“Students come to college to do more than sit in classrooms,” she said. “They want to get involved and have hands-on experiences applying their classroom knowledge in the world around them.

“Students often feel isolated from the area and its residents,” she continued. “Some of them had no idea what was available in our town for kids, families, and for them. In multiple interviews, the community leaders we spoke to demonstrated their enthusiasm for working with Cornell students. I hope and expect this will lead to more volunteerism among this inaugural group of engaged learners.”

The community-engaged component of Kushnir’s introduction course is one example of the College of Human Ecology’s work to develop more opportunities for students to collaborate with communities both inside and outside of the classroom, said Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology. “Whether through capstone courses, internships, or research with faculty, we have a longstanding commitment to applied learning. This is a hallmark of Human Ecology education.”

The College received a three-year, foundation-building block grant from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives in the fall of 2020 as part of its Engaged College initiative, which also provides consultations and training to build long-term partnerships with college leadership teams.

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