When Mateo Franco Aguirre ’24 worked at a union on Long Island this summer, he discovered many workers in New York state’s rapidly growing legal cannabis industry were unfamiliar with their rights as union members.
“It was eye-opening, because a lot of these workers are native Spanish speakers and don’t really necessarily understand what a union even is,” said Aguirre, who interned at Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW, which represents workers in retail, wholesale, department store, food and commercial settings.
As part of his internship, he informed the workers about their rights; he is bilingual in Spanish and English. “I was able to explain what the benefits are and why they’re part of this organization that they might not have otherwise realized they were even a part of,” said Aguirre.
He is one of 12 undergraduates – all industrial and labor relations majors – who took part in the first High Roads Fellowship program to take place in New York City. During the nine-week session, June 5- Aug. 4, the fellows gained work experience as they assisted nonprofits, social justice groups, government offices and unions in the New York City region.
“A lot of Cornell students envision their future in New York City,” Aguirre said. “So the fact that the fellowship [provides this experience] for people, so they can really get in touch with what the future may look like, is amazing.”
Cornell pays the students for their work and offers them free housing. That support enables students from all economic and geographic backgrounds to have experiences beyond the classroom.
The ILR School has been running the High Roads Fellowship for 15 years in Buffalo, New York. This year, it expanded its reach to New York City thanks to a three-year grant from the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement.
The program’s expansion complements the school’s longstanding presence in New York City, including the ILR Outreach Division in Manhattan, said Brigid Beachler, M.S. ’05, director of Office of Engaged and Experiential Programs at the ILR School. And the city is home to many organizations that can offer a mutually beneficial experience for undergrads, she said.
“As much as we hope that the students are of value to our partners, we also want our students to be open to the idea that there are still things to learn,” Beachler said. “We really stress that they don’t have all the answers. We tell them, ‘Remember that these partners have their own interests and their own goals and needs, and you’re there to help, versus come in with your own agenda.’”
The students were assigned to organizations ranging from The Horticulture Society of New York, which works to improve the city’s green spaces, to an eatery that recruits and trains people with mental and cognitive disabilities. Three students worked for Alex Bores ’13, the assemblyman representing the 73rd District of New York who majored in industrial and labor relations. He was eager to host the fellows, he said.
“A lot of the questions about what we should regulate and how we should grow industry in New York come back to questions that I studied at ILR,” said Bores.
Bryanne Sarfo ’26, an industrial and labor relations major in the ILR School, joined Bores’ team to explore a potential career in government. During her internship, she gathered information on legislation about e-bikes so Bores could determine whether to sponsor a bill to insure them.
“By the end of the internship I had a good understanding of how to read policy,” Sarfo said. “It’s a really good skill to be able to read it and truly understand what it means.”
On Fridays, the cohort gathered at ILR’s Outreach office at 570 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan for a weekly reflective workshop with guest speakers. Esta Bigler ’70, director of ILR’s Labor and Employment Law Program, lead the sessions and talked about her own employment journey in New York City.
“What I valued the most from an experience like this is the connections I made with the people, and getting to know them and their trajectory when it came to their career paths,” Aguirre said. “Because skills I can always learn anytime, but those connections are what gave me perspective.”