SUCCESSFUL PARTNERSHIPS WITH THE LOCAL HUMAN SERVICE COMMUNITY IN PROMOTING CITIZEN EDUCATION AND COMMUNITY EMPOWERMENT IN THE INFORMATIONAL AGE
By Leonardo Vargas-Méndez,
Assistant Director, Public Service Center. Cornell University
About our Philosophy at the Public Service Center
Cornell is a learning community that seeks to serve society by educating the leaders of tomorrow...
This beginning sentence of the university’s mission statement affirms that “learning community,” “service to society,” and “leadership education” are main components of the Cornell student experience. The Public Service Center was founded by Cornell University in 1991 to support, expand, and institutionalize the public service initiatives of students and faculty that connect academic study with real world experiences and knowledge in our communities. The Center is an academic initiative of the division of Student and Academic Services. Our mission is to champion the conviction that the Cornell University experience confirms service as essential to active citizenship.
To fulfill this mission, the Public Service Center has chosen service-learning as the educational philosophy to guide its programs. A service-learning approach enhances and reinforces academic learning with practical experiences, strengthens civic values and moral character, and responds to community needs. Service-learning fosters service to others, community development and empowerment, and reciprocal learning through participants’ social and educational interactions.
Service-learning differs from other experiential education approaches in two main ways:
•Service-learning fosters reflective action, the union of social action with structured intentional learning (Berry; Stanton) to help participants critically understand the larger societal contexts and issues behind the community needs and problems they are trying to address (Kendall).
•Service-learning is reciprocal learning in the fundamental sense of promoting an educational exchange between the “server (s)” and those “being served” that recognizes that both parties have something to teach to and learn from each other. By creating a relationship and exchange based on mutual respect and responsibility among participants, this reciprocity principle helps service-learning to break away from traditional community-based learning practices of the academia (research, field practicums, etc.) or community service activities which have disempowered and paternalist effects on communities. (Kendall; Stanton).
The Public Service Center offers to Cornell students who are interested in service a variety of service options from which to choose, including: academic courses; student programs and projects that foster student leadership in service; faculty civic projects and courses with a service component, and funding opportunities available for campus community partnerships that address a targeted community need. To facilitate these service options, the Center supports a well-developed clearinghouse for information and referral that includes a dynamic student staff whose role is to coordinate requests and volunteers, create group projects, and guide individual students in finding a service opportunity that best meets their interests and needs. It also supports a Faculty Fellows In Service program that provides resources, funding, curricular support, and an academic forum for faculty engaged or wanting to engage in service-learning courses and projects.
I won’t be talking about these programs at this time, but if anyone would like more information about them, please visit our web site at
http://www.psc.cornell.edu or visit the Center at 200 Barnes Hall.
The cornerstone of our service-learning program is our long-standing partnership with the local community. A large network of over 150 nonprofit and governmental agencies, schools, and grass-roots organizations provide over 700 opportunities for students and faculty to engage themselves in positive social action.
The Volunteer and Community Work Study Programs are probably the most familiar in our community. Both programs have enjoyed a collaborative relationship with more than 150 community and governmental agencies for over 30 years.
The Volunteer Program serves two purposes: to assist students in finding a placement in the community and to meet the volunteer needs of the local community. You will find three types of volunteer opportunities in our public service database: on-going, one-time, and group projects. On-going opportunities are for individuals who are willing to make a commitment to one agency, while one-time events, such as festivals, clean-ups, fundraisers, etc., are for those who can not make a regular commitment; group projects allow students to work together in serving the community. Any agency that has a need that can be met through volunteers should contact the Public Service Center to submit a request.
The Community Work Study Program is sponsored by Cornell University to enable Cornell Federal Work Study students to work for nonprofit and governmental agencies and schools in Ithaca and Tompkins County at a minimal cost to the agency. Community service jobs are designed to improve the quality of life for community residents, particularly low-income individuals, or to solve problems related to their needs. The Community Work Study Program was designed to assist students in meeting the cost of higher education by promoting access to employment opportunities through paid placements in the community. On average, the Community Work Study Program places over 250 students during the academic year and nearly 100 students during the summer.
The third program is Service-Learning Courses and Student Interns. There are more than 30 courses at Cornell that integrate academic studies with meaningful community action, and more than 700 students enroll in these courses each year. Course subjects range from education to the sciences, and cover a variety of social issues. Students are required to work with a community agency or school from two to five hours per week for 10 to 14 weeks each semester. Their community-based learning is evaluated through the journals they keep, essays they write, and agency monitoring and evaluation. Many of these class projects have resulted in meaningful products for the benefit of our community. For example, one of the most recent was a collaborative project between Prof. Ann-Margaret Esnard’s class from the Department of City and Regional Planning and the America Red Cross (ARC). The partnership made GIS technology available to the Red Cross, enabling them to generate a number of high quality color maps and statistical information on our region, which will support the ARC’s disaster work plan. Over 100 similar projects have been developed through service-learning courses or civic professional projects, all supported by the Faculty Fellows in Service program.
True to the fundamental service-learning value of reciprocity, the Center has made a commitment to enhance our collaborative relationship with the community and to develop a consistent presence and voice of this community in our programming. For this, we have developed the Community Roundtable, a forum of over 25 agency representatives, who meet three times per year with Center staff and student leaders to discuss issues and concerns arising from our collaboration. Examples include issues such as student volunteer management, faculty-agency collaboration, and transportation. This is also an opportunity to learn more about the university and community cultures and resources, and to develop strategies to access these resources for our mutual benefit and the benefit of all service-learning participants (faculty, students, community). Because it is a learning community, we share constructive feedback that will enhance our services.
In addition to the Community Roundtable, the Center sponsors an annual university-community partnership conference for agencies, faculty, and students to exchange views on the quality of the partnership and to seek common solutions to issues that arise throughout the collaboration.
As part of our commitment to reciprocity, the Center has arranged collaborative relationships with other university departments in order to support community agencies. For example, the Center and Cornell Information Technologies sponsor a high-speed Community Internet Connection that allows community agencies to access all computing services (internet, e-mail, electronic library resources) available to the Cornell community by paying a subsidized monthly fee of $5. The program started in 1995, and Cornell through this partnership was one of the first major universities in the nation to offer this service to the local community. Only agencies that provide volunteer, work study, and internship or service-learning experiences for Cornell students are eligible, and priority is given to agencies that have an ongoing relationship with the Center. The current program is a group subscription allowing two simultaneous connection privileges, meaning only two agencies can access the internet at one time. There are over 25 agencies signed up for the group at the present time. There have been no complaints about access so far.
Another example is the Center’s collaboration with the department of University Human Resources and CIT, which provides access for the administrators of community agencies to enroll in staff development workshops offered for Cornell administrative and professional staff throughout the year. Finally, we sponsor two Public Service Fairs each year (one at the beginning of each semester) that draw in over 40 agencies to disseminate information about service opportunities for students and recruitment.
Central to our commitment to a long-lasting partnership with the local human service community has been our collaboration with the Office of Information and Referral (I & R) of Tompkins County. Projects have included the publication of Guide to Volunteer Opportunities in Tompkins County, for which Public Service Center students, under the guidance of Ed Sawyze, director of I & R, assisted with the collection, compilation and organization of the information. Most recently, last summer, I & R and the Center surveyed over 100 agencies to find out current computer literacy needs in the human service community, with the goal of developing a corp of Cornell students that would volunteer their time and share their computer expertise with the staff of local agencies. A student staff member from the Center has been assigned to collaborate with Kathy Schlather on the Tompkins County Collaborative Communication Project to support her efforts in developing computer training opportunities for human service agencies.
The Center is also collaborating with the Computer Loan Program at Beverly J. Martin (BJM) Elementary School. As you know, this program lends computers to BJM students to take home and thus makes computer literacy available to families of the school community. We strongly believe in the need of making this information technology available to everyone as an important democratic action. The Center has assisted the program in many ways, from getting computer donations, to students helping with the lending process, and hopefully in the near future, with computer literacy opportunities for children and families of the school neighborhood.
Data gathered last academic year (1997-1998) highlighted the increasing number of students impacted by Public Service Center initiatives: a total of 3,780 students (over one-third of the total number of undergraduate students at Cornell University) participated in curricular and co-curricular service activities promoted by the Center’s programs. Students worked a total of 140,170 hours in the local community, which equates to at least a contribution of $722,000 to the local community.
At the Center, we firmly believe that a successful program requires a strong partnership with the community. To facilitate this: we have developed mechanisms to ensure the community's voice and input; arranged, within our limited resources, some exchange of resources that are beneficial to the community; and most of all, striven for a relationship of mutual respect and responsibility to each other organization, goals, and culture.