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Community engagement is not an experiment

Institutions of higher education are no strangers to high-profile gifts from their successful alumni. In particular, Cornell University is the recent recipient of a $50 million gift from alumnus and billionaire hedge fund manager David Einhorn. This $50 million donation, which will be supplemented by another $100 million from outside donors, will fund the university’s new 10-year initiative called Engaged Cornell, which will encourage students to go beyond the classroom and have hands-on experiences through community-university partnerships. The goal of expanding the percentage of student engagement in communities to 100 percent is certainly noble and inspiring. However, the initiative’s goal to enable departments to offer these community-integrated courses at all levels of expertise, including introductory-level classes, can be troubling.

In her Oct. 6 article in The New York Times, Ariel Kaminer covered the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust’s gift to Cornell through the lens of the recent interest in integrating student education with community service experience. She states that “interest in educational styles tends to run in cycles, and community engagement is a trendy topic these days.” Besides the problematic notion of community engagement as being “trendy,” Kaminer’s article also references Engaged Cornell and other university initiatives that integrate community participation and learning as “experiments.” While these two word choices may not be part of the point of Kaminer’s article, they do highlight the possible consequences of squeezing students from introductory-level courses (and not just advanced courses) into potentially high-impact programs.

If we take a look at Princeton’s Program in Global Health and Health Policy, we can see the emphasis on developing students’ understanding and research of the subject before application. The program requires field- or lab-based research specifically during the summer between junior and senior years —the purpose of which is to make sure that students will already have taken the required core courses—GHP 350: Critical Perspectives in Global Health and GHP 351: Epidemiology —in their junior years before they go abroad. This is so that students will make their best efforts to be prepared for their field experiences ahead of time through courses like GHP 350 and 351. These courses provide students with an introduction to the world of development and policy and to the importance of acknowledging that their future actions in this world will have socioeconomic implications that will directly affect the lives of people around the world. Courses like GHP 350 and 351 inform and remind students that there really is a way to do service wrong. After all, if a community is willing to receive a student’s help and input, shouldn’t that student be knowledgeable about that community’s culture, history and economy as well as effective ways to establish a program that is both integrated and sustainable. There is a way to do volunteering, community engagement and policy-making incorrectly so that while they might have a “high-impact” effect on the targeted community, that impact may be undesired and perhaps even harmful to that community.

While the lofty goals for Engaged Cornell have fantastic intentions, allowing students to engage in communities before they have received a certain amount of foundation in the classroom and from existing literature on a topic means that they’re going into these communities with a very small toolbox. Even though the students can learn on the job, there’s really not enough room for “trial-and-error” as learning usually involves because these are real people whom students work with. And these people may have already been struggling before that student came to “learn on the job.”

Furthermore, within the goals of Engaged Cornell listed in the Cornell Chronicle on Oct. 6, the program plans to “launch a new engaged-learning leadership development program, available to all students across colleges, Leadership for the Greater Good, where student exemplars who successfully complete the program will receive special recognition upon graduation” by 2025. The possibility of special recognition for exemplary completion of the program upon graduation could mean that many students will try to participate in the program without the purity of intention and sensitivity that should drive community engagement. Sure, a major factor of participating in community service for students may already be that added resume boost, but the official honors that the initiative offers and promotes in its goals may accentuate this misguided way of thinking, and if anything, conflict with the intentions of the initiative itself.

Besides the lack of formal learning in the classroom and the potentially counterproductive effect of offering special recognition, the program’s inclusion of students in introductory levels is inherently problematic in that it may include college sophomores and even freshmen. It is true that our freshman and sophomore years are characterized by large 200-person-plus lectures without much individualized attention or practical application of material, so a program like this can be a dream come true. However, encouraging students —who might not have had as much training, guidance or culture-specific classes as would an upperclassman —to get out there in the “real world” and make “high-impact” changes in the communities they’ve barely studied cannot be a wise allocation of such valuable resources.

In spite of their emphasis on out-of-the-classroom teaching, community-engaged initiatives often fail to recognize that the classroom may be the place where students learn respect for the communities they wish to serve before they make the mistake of learning it the hard way.

Isabella Gomes is an ecology and evolutionary biology major from Irvine, Calif. She can be reached at igomes@princeton.edu.

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