Melody Welles '27 and Ariela Asllani ’26 at the Einhorn Center’s 2nd Annual Community Engagement Awards.

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Robinson-Appel Award recipients serve diverse local populations

Three Cornell undergraduates are recipients of this year’s Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Awards to honor their significant involvement in community engagement. Ariela Asllani ’26, David Ni’ 24 and Melody Welles ’27 will each receive a $2,500 prize towards projects that improve the lives of diverse local populations, including adopted and foster children, refugee students and immigrants.

The award was established by Gerald ’54 and Margot Robinson ’55 and the late Robert ’53 and Helen Appel ’55. It is facilitated each spring by the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement. This year’s recipients draw heavily on their own life stories to shape their projects and connect to the communities with whom they are working.

In October 2023, Ariela Asllani, a public policy major in the Brooks School of Public Policy, founded Refugee Scholars in Ithaca. The daughter of political refugees and a first-generation, low-income college student, Asllani aims to help refugee students bridge the opportunity gap to an academic education. She is coordinating her efforts with local volunteer organization Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR) to identify high school students who could benefit from the project.

Under the guidance of mentors at Cornell and IWR, Asllani has recorded several YouTube videos with useful career and college application information. To date, her organization has also secured enough funding from two grants to aid seven students with laptops, SAT and ACT preparation materials and school supplies. She will use the Robinson-Appel award to support an additional seven students, extending the project into the 2024-25 academic year.

For his No More Crying project, David Ni is working with the History Center in Tompkins County to explore the history of Ithaca as a place of immigration and beacon of hope for those seeking to better their lives. The architecture major in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning — and first-generation immigrant himself — aims to capture and honor stories of loss, survival and hope from local immigrants’ experiences.

Ni’s project grew out of his friendship with a member of the Tibetan-Ithacan community, Niyama, whom he will interview as well as two other immigrants to Ithaca from different geographic origins and generations. Expanding the practice of oral history documentation, Ni is asking interviewees to recall day-in-the-life experiences at different moments and essential spaces in their lives. He will generate maps, perspectives and plans and review and redraw them in a collaborative process. The resulting audio-visual recordings and drawings will become part of the History Center’s collections.

Melody Welles, a human development major in the College of Human Ecology, was motivated by her experience in the child welfare system to found a local support group for foster children and adoptees. Starting this spring, the Ithaca Adoptive and Foster Youth Support Group will provide a safe environment for foster and adoptive youth between the ages of two and seven to play and form lasting connections with each other.

Welles — who has previously guided adopted children through the Cross-Cultural Adoptee Mentorship Program at Cornell — plans to lead the children in group and individual activities intended to support them in working through any trauma they may have experienced. She is also partnering with the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, which she hopes will, over time, help her create similar groups across the state and beyond.

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