Third-year doctoral student in natural resources and the environment Francine Barchett ’19, MPS ’21 (left) helps animal science major Nika Rice ’24 (right) plant a tree at the Groundswell Incubator Farm on May 10.

Students of different faiths unite to plant trees, give back

On a rainy Friday in May, five miles from Cornell’s main campus, 20 students – many who’d never before met – worked side by side digging holes, hauling mulch and planting trees at Groundswell Incubator Farm.

“It’s just really good to get to know each other and realize we’re all humans, and we all can connect on so many things,” said Nika Rice ’24, an animal science major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and a member of the Episcopal Church at Cornell. “I think it really leads to more empathy for others and understanding.”

Held May 10 and co-sponsored by the Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making (OSMM), the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement and Cornell United Religious Work, the inaugural Interfaith Service Day provided students with the opportunity to meet people from different backgrounds and faiths. In addition to fostering new connections, attendees could engage with the Ithaca community and offered students a way to de-stress during the study period heading into final exams.

Yao “Chacha” Foli, Groundswell Incubator Farm manager, shows students how to properly pack compost and mulch around a freshly planted bush on the farm's property.

“We thought this would be a good opportunity to literally get our hands dirty – which I think is therapeutic,” said Francine Barchett ’19, MPS ’21, a third-year doctoral student in natural resources and the environment, and a member of the Cornell Faith and Environment Collective. “It helps to do things like this and to meet people who are different from us in many different ways.”

An incubator farm, Groundswell offers a space for beginning farmers and people who have historically not had access to the land and capital it takes to farm. They supply equipment, training, resources and land to help new farmers set goals, find markets and plan for a profitable business.

“Interfaith work is very often centered around and tied to community engagement,” said Ivy Breivogel, assistant director for OSMM. “Like organizing people with different religious beliefs around common values such as caring for the natural world and the environment.

“And the first step of interfaith work has to be bringing people together to form human relationships, trust and community,” she said. “We can’t jump straight into deep dialogue with strangers we don’t trust.”

Students were tasked with planting trees and bushes at Groundswell in an effort to add biodiversity to the property and to attract more pollinators, birds and insects to increase the resilience of the farm. Earlier this year Basil Safi, executive director of the Einhorn Center, brought a student from Cornell Engineering to the farm to identify strategies for enhancing water efficiency, since two-thirds of their current budget is allocated to water expenditures.

“We love working with community partners like Groundswell, where we can engage students in a variety of ways – from research and course projects to community work-study positions to one-time service opportunities like this one,” said Safi, whose center helps connect thousands of students with community-engagement opportunities, locally and globally.

“Our partners get to advance their goals by tapping into university resources and expertise,” Safi said, “and students learn new skills, meet and collaborate with new people, and often gain real-world experience that enhances what they’re learning in the classroom.”

Laura Gallup is a communication lead for Student and Campus Life.

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Kaitlyn Serrao