Nicolas Rey-Le Lorier

Vet school student volunteers at the SPCA.

The town-gown divide is the stuff of legend. In medieval Oxford scuffles between students and town residents escalated into an all-out riot. In Cornell: A History, 1940-2015, writers and professors Isaac Kramnick and Glenn Altshuler return repeated to the topic of relations between the university and the community. The nature of tensions varies: in the 1940s the university offered commercial services with which local businesses had to compete. In the 1960s the Cornell chapter of the Student for a Democratic Society actively campaigned for the construction of low-income housing in Ithaca.

In the 21st century both Cornell and Ithaca College have offices set up to organize town-gown relations, making sure that students develop a positive relationship with the Ithaca community through a large number of volunteer outreach programs. Since 1991 Cornell has maintained its Public Service Center ( 

Many of the Cornell programs set up students in a position where they can influence children in the community to follow in their footsteps and succeed in an academic context. AVID (Advancement by Individual Determination) pairs undergraduate students with schoolchildren and encourages the latter to not only focus in the classroom, but to also take part in extracurricular activities at school. Big Red Buddies places the undergraduates in a public school classroom to serve as an aide to the teacher. There are more than a dozen other programs that are aimed at different demographics and provide varying roles for the students.

Within its office of Student Engagement and Multicultural Affairs Ithaca College has a program called Community Service Initiatives. The explicit emphasis of South Hill program is slightly from the one in East Hill. Ithaca College hopes “to foster a lifelong commitment to civic responsibility,” which is unstated at Cornell’s PSC site, but is strongly implied by the number of leadership programs offered that encourage students to enter public service as a career.

The College of Arts and Sciences is a liberal arts school and isn’t necessarily training its students toward a particular career. In contrast, Ithaca College has a curriculum quite focused on professional training in a number of fields. Therefore their community service work is presented straightforwardly as “co-curricular.”

IC students are encouraged to speak with Assistant Director of Community Service Don Austin or a Student Leadership Consultant in order to figure out how to get involved in a community project that best matches the student’s skills and interests. There is a volunteer listserv that students may join in order to get timely notices about opportunities to work in the community.

While many of the volunteer opportunities at Cornell involve helping children in an academic context, Ithaca College has standing relationships with places like Cayuga Nature Center and the Children’s Garden where students can work with children in a less formal setting. In addition, some of these standing relationships have nothing to do with child education, including working the Durland Alternatives Library (at Cornell), the Ithaca Free Health Clinic, and Loaves and Fishes, the community kitchen. You can even help build local houses through Community Building Works.

Ithaca College also organizes “Service Saturdays” one day per month between October and February. The college promises, “By developing new, ‘place-based’ knowledge through service experience, Ithaca College students can more thoroughly scrutinize their academic foundation, and grow as community-minded scholars.” Cornell’s PSC takes a slightly different approach and publishes a “Hotlist” where students can find volunteer situations on specific days throughout the year (including the summer).

At Cornell their Community Work-study Program enables students receiving federal work-study aid to find work in community non-profits, schools, and municipalities. Opportunities are available for students in the arts and social sciences, but also in engineering and the environmental fields.

Arching over all the community work at Cornell is the 10-year effort called “Engaged Cornell,” which was launched in October 2014. The program, which is funded by a $50 million grant from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, is “charged with promoting innovation in community-engaged and real-world learning, and making those practices the hallmark of the Cornell undergraduate experience,” according to the Cornell Chronicle. Engaged Cornell has seven initiatives, but only is presently underway, the one focused on community-engaged curriculum grants. §


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