Laura A. Lewis – longtime director of student services in Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and recently elected member of Ithaca’s Common Council – grew up in Buffalo, New York, the oldest of three in a family headed by a single mother who did not complete high school and often worked two jobs to make ends meet.
One Thanksgiving, her mother invited over some college students who lived next door for dinner. That experience taught Lewis the significance of “being thankful and sharing what we had, rather than focusing on things we didn’t have,” she said Feb. 1 at Soup & Hope. It also provided her a first glimpse into college life.
Lewis has always felt the tug of two worlds – of the family she grew up in and of the career in student and community service she has pursued since her undergraduate years – beginning with that Thanksgiving lesson she learned from her mother, she said.
Teachers and friends helped Lewis pursue college. She applied for and received funding to attend the State University of New York at Fredonia through the New York State Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), becoming the first in her family to go to college rather than fulfilling her family’s expectations to find a job and go to work after graduating from high school.
That created a disconnect between Lewis and her family, but she also felt disconnected from her college peers. “A sense of being a stranger in a strange new land was ever present,” she said. “I sometimes felt like an imposter, and I feared that people would realize they’d made a mistake and I shouldn’t be there.”
Volunteering for various campus organizations gave Lewis connections to campus life and “a sense of belonging,” she said. When she found it difficult to balance her campus community service with her academic work, Lewis took a year off to sort out her career plans. She changed her major to sociology and transferred to Binghamton University. There she volunteered with an admissions group that hosted high school students who wanted to learn about the EOP program.
Lewis’ career goals solidified when she was selected to work as a peer adviser in Binghamton’s Advising Center: “I found a synergy between what I was studying and my passion for community service,” she said.
Entering a graduate program in student services at the State University of New York at Albany and then taking student services positions at Ithaca College and Cornell’s ILR School further solidified Lewis’ career. She said that while she was grateful for her new career, working in an academic setting drew her even further from the world in which she had grown up.
In addition to her work in student services, Lewis continued her immersion in her local community, serving for more that 18 years as a member of the board of directors of the Ithaca Neighborhood Housing Services, for example. She was an organizer of the Ithaca Women’s March in 2017 and in November 2017 was elected to represent Ithaca’s fifth ward on the Common Council.
Though politics could have divided her from her family, Lewis’ belief in “the common good of our community” has struck a chord with other family members involved in community service. Her brother, a retired police officer, posted on Facebook how proud he was of her for participating in the march, and her daughter-in-law sent her a photo of Lewis’ 11-month-old grandson, with his mom, at the Women’s March in Honolulu.
The two forces – the pull of Lewis’ family ties and her passion for service – have merged.