Service-learning helps students help communities

College students – who have the time and energy to serve as well as the desire to learn – are uniquely positioned to advance their education while helping communities prepare for potential disasters, according to a new book co-edited by a Cornell researcher.

The challenge is how to establish partnerships between university instructors and government and nonprofit leaders.

“Service-Learning for Disaster Resilience, Partnerships for Social Good,” co-edited by Rebecca Morgenstern Brenner, a senior lecturer in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, is believed to be the first to discuss an approach to utilizing service-learning to specifically address the growing need to building disaster resilience in vulnerable communities. The takeaway: This requires building community capacity and strengthening social networks while enhancing student learning.

Brenner, also a fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, authored or co-authored five of the book’s chapters. At Cornell, she has directed several service-learning partnerships that saw Brooks School M.P.A. students contribute to building community resilience. For example, students assisted New Lebanon, New York, as it sought to expand its economy with green technology jobs.

Brenner is also a faculty fellow in the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, and a Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies faculty associate. She co-leads the Federal Emergency Management Institute (FEMA) Special Interest Group that focuses specifically on service-learning and leadership.

Brenner spoke to the Chronicle about the potential of service-learning to assist communities before disaster strikes.


Question: What are service-learning partnerships?

Answer: Service-learning partnerships are an opportunity for students to engage in meaningful and mutually beneficial projects that are an investment in the community. For these partnerships to be successful, the projects need to provide information, policy or outcomes driven by community need and students need to have opportunity to reflect on their experience.


Q: How could they make our communities more disaster-resilient?

A: One thing we know is that with a changing climate, disasters will be increasing, and the impact of these disasters will likely harm the most vulnerable in the community. We have significant evidence of this. We also know that in many communities worldwide the most vulnerable residents, communities and governments may not have the capacity or expertise to invest in mitigation or adaptation planning. Here is where instead of theoretical assignments, students work with communities based on what those localities need and apply tools they learn in the classroom for real projects. That then builds the capacity of communities to have this knowledge, experience or toolkits to be better prepared to respond or adapt to changing environmental conditions or natural disasters. 


Q: Could you offer an example of a partnership that has really made a difference to both students and a community?

A: Here are three projects out of many:

  • The Nature Conservancy: Assessing Progress and Barriers to Ecological Restoration of State Property Buyout Programs - This project was built through a grant with the Atkinson Center, where I was a co-PI on the project with an interdisciplinary team that included Linda Shi, an assistant professor in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, Jamie Vanucchi, an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Amelia Greiner Safi, a professor of practice in the College of Veterinary Medicine. This project concerned government programs to buy homes and businesses that are in floodplains or will be chronically inundated due to climate change. It started with focus groups to identify barriers to making buyback programs more equitable, gather action steps, and enable discussion among different geographies about how to bring equity and ecology into the programs. It produced an article published in a major academic journal.   
  • Jewish Family Services of Buffalo and Erie County, Disaster Management Plan for Refugees. In Buffalo, there are more than 100 different languages in the refugee community, and residents need to be alerted in a language they can understand when there are emergencies and disasters. This project looked at strategy to build emergency notification and asks whether refugees know where to go to get the information and whether they understand the messaging. Three teams studied what the refugee community needed to know to build their adaptative capacity, this included understanding voice translation apps to community hubs where refugees gather and what knowledge was needed to understand how to respond to and cope with environmental threats.
  • Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Peru. This multi-year collaboration is to provide background research for the ministries on environmental policy issues. For example, one team looked at microplastics and the impact on public health policy in Peru; another looked how gender contributes to disaster vulnerability and how policies can empower community capacity.

Jim Hanchett is assistant dean of communications for the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli