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Food service staffer Beverly Hubbell, left, poses with her student learning partner, Natalie Chen ’20, at the May 10 CLASP celebration luncheon, held at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Staff embrace ‘discomfort zone’ in quest for learning

Another successful semester of Cornell staff members pairing with student mentors to learn new skills was showcased and celebrated May 10 at a luncheon for participants in the Community Learning and Service Partnership (CLASP) program.

The range of skills the partnerships targeted was broad: One staff participant needed to study and prepare for his citizenship exam. Another wanted to learn photography so he could join a business venture with his deejay brother, working weddings and other events as a package deal. A Cornell cook who also is a part-time arborist needed to complete several continuing education units to maintain her certification.

Dave Nelson, CLASP program liaison, speaks at the luncheon celebration May 10.

They and several dozen other staff members were matched with undergraduates and either worked toward, met or exceeded their learning goals. Along the way, they also found friendship and nurtured a love for mutual learning through the program.

At the luncheon celebration, Dave Nelson, CLASP program liaison, described the breadth of learners the program draws and the subject matter and skills they study. He noted the courage it takes to embrace lifelong learning, especially for those who haven’t been in school or taken classes in a long time.

Nelson described the three zones of learning that CLASP director Annalisa Raymer often identifies: the comfort zone, the discomfort zone and the panic zone.

“If you’re in the comfort zone, you’re not learning very well because you’re not being challenged,” Nelson said. “If you’re in the panic zone, you’re not learning very well because you’re so stressed out and overwhelmed with information – but when you’re in the discomfort zone, you’re really at your optimal learning point. You’re challenging yourself to learn new information.”

Putting yourself in that discomfort zone in order to learn requires being vulnerable, he said: You’re openly admitting you don’t know things and have to work to learn something new.

At the luncheon, students spoke about their learning partnerships with staff members, who also spoke about their experiences learning from the students.

Sabrina Sugano ’19 worked with technician Cindy Wang on practicing and improving her English skills in professional situations. “We made a ton of progress,” Sugano said. “Beyond learning, I also made a friend in Cindy, and so it was a really great experience.”

Lena Reeb ’21 worked with Leila Ellis, a campus cook and part-time arborist, on completing her continuing education units. “It was a little intimidating because I had never done anything with trees before,” Reeb said. “She knows so much and has a lot of experience in the workplace.

“I learned that you don’t have to know everything in order to teach – and she was very welcoming, and that really helped me,” Reeb said. “And I learned about tree climbing, which I did not know was a competitive sport. So thank you for a great semester.”

Sara Salmonson ’19 worked with Statler Hotel staffer Daniel Stojan on studying for his citizenship exam. They not only worked on the exam but expanded the subjects they studied along the way, “because he’s just so passionate about everything he’s involved in and he has so many skills,” Salmonson said, describing it as “like becoming friends throughout the process.

“And I’ll never forget how excited you were every week,” she told him. “I hope that everyone else has something to learn from your enthusiasm.”

“It was great to work with Sara. I always asked for more than what I signed up for – unfortunately maybe,” Stojan said to laughter. “But it was really amazing.”

Natalie Chen ’20 worked with food service staffer Beverly Hubbell on food-handling tasks, describing it as a great experience and Hubbell as a highly motivated learner. But at the luncheon, Chen turned the tables, telling Hubbell: “I want to thank you for all the things you taught me.”

Just last month, CLASP was honored with the 25th annual James A. Perkins Prize for Interracial and Intercultural Peace and Harmony for helping to create a sense of belonging and inclusiveness at Cornell.

Holly Austin, a custodian in facilities management, has participated in CLASP for a yearlong internal rotation and was the Cornellian who nominated the program for the Perkins Prize.

“I couldn’t think of any other program at the university that aligns with the university’s values the way that CLASP’s does,” Austin said, noting Raymer and CLASP “bring so many people together from so many different walks of life. It’s always heartwarming to see that connection.”

Media Contact

Gillian Smith