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Panel explores ‘cutting-edge’ Engaged College Initiative

As a master’s student at Cornell, Nancy Wells took Housing and Feeding the Homeless, a course where students heard from guest speakers addressing homelessness and hunger around the country and partnered with Habitat for Humanity to develop a housing repair program for low-income families.

“I felt that I was so lucky to find this gem of a class that resonated with me so deeply and was enriching in so many ways,” said Wells, now senior associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Human Ecology (CHE). “That class was a really transformative experience.”

Wells shared this story during a virtual panel event on October 4 about the Engaged College Initiative, launched last fall by the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement. The initiative aims to make community-engaged learning experiences like Wells’ the norm across campus by providing funding and support to college deans and leadership. CHE and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business are the first two colleges participating in the program.

“The partnerships are customized to build on each of the college's unique strengths, assets and priorities,” said Richard Kiely, senior fellow in the Einhorn Center, who moderated the panel. He explained that the center provides three-year foundational grants, consultations and trainings with the goal of building a long-term, collaborative relationship with each college. The college initiative complements the Einhorn Center’s other offerings, including student-run co-curricular activities, community-engaged leadership programming and faculty fellowships.

Panelist Linda Barrington, associate dean of external relations at the SC Johnson College, outlined what the college has done in the first year, including convening an Engaged College Advisory Committee, defining what community-engaged learning and community partnerships mean in the context of the college and conducting an inventory of current opportunities.

“All of this is going toward our ambition, which is that every student who passes through the college has a hands-on learning experience where they then pause and critically reflect on what that experience has done for stakeholders beyond shareholders,” Barrington said.

The College of Human Ecology is offering grants to support community-engaged learning in the college, and the SC Johnson College is in the process of developing grant applications. The College of Architecture, Art and Planning and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations have launched the initiative and are developing their partnerships with Einhorn Center staff.

“As the college-centric initiative moves forward in the coming years, we're going to have more and more colleges going through this process,” said Julia Felippe, Provost’s Fellow for Public Engagement and a professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, encouraging faculty across the university to get involved.

John Saltmarsh, professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and an expert in the field of community engagement, was a discussant on the panel. He described how a commitment to community engagement can advance a college’s mission, align with accreditation expectations and attract a new generation of students and faculty.

“This is about shaping the future of the college and being able to signal clearly, this is actually what we care about. This is what we value in this college,” said Saltmarsh.

Later that day, Saltmarsh gave a presentation that set Cornell’s community engagement initiatives within the broader history and context of the field. In the talk, “What the Hell is Water? What It Will Be Like When Community Engagement Is Part of the Culture of the Campus,” Saltmarsh explained how, 30 years ago, the strategy was to support individual faculty teaching community-engaged courses. Over time, that shifted to a focus on “engaged departments” that could develop community-engaged curricula and policies and then to institution-wide community engagement.

However, as Saltmarsh explained, institutional-level guidelines need to be embraced at the college level in order to become part of the culture at highly decentralized research institutions.

“In terms of strategies for institutionalizing engagement, we're at the point now where the engaged college is perhaps the cutting edge of this work,” Saltmarsh said.

Saltmarsh went on to describe the role that community engagement centers, like the Einhorn Center, can play in an engaged college, including serving as a “backbone organization” with an “emphasis on facilitation and collaboration and coordination.”

Through the Engaged College Initiative, the Einhorn Center works with leadership in the colleges, building on existing relationships with faculty and staff—many of whom have received grants or participated in center programs in the past. Together, Einhorn Center staff and college teams are co-designing what it means for the center to be a “backbone,” with discussions covering data management, cost effectiveness, tailored academic programming, resources and consultation and developing coordinated infrastructure that supports every student’s participation in high-quality community-engaged learning. 

"The Engaged College Initiative is a work in progress and together with college stakeholders, we have co-created a collaborative process that allows us to share ideas and learn from each other,” Kiely said. “Hearing from Dr. Saltmarsh and our esteemed panelists was an opportunity to reflect on our shifting roles and the myriad ways we might share responsibility for advancing and sustaining high-quality community-engaged learning at Cornell and beyond.”

Ashlee McGandy is the content strategist in the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement.

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