New minor, old tradition
by Jamie Kelly
The whole of a Cornell education is infused with the importance of civic engagement.
As America moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the small towns in between needed educated people to serve their communities," said Jim Brown, special assistant to the president. "They needed teachers, they needed ministers, and they needed doctors and lawyers and bankers."
"Part of the goal of any successful college or university is graduating thoughtful, purpose-driven leaders who are committed to making a difference and solving some of the world's problems," said Cornell President Jonathan Brand. A liberal arts education helps that go even further, he said, because students learn skills, and they also learn the value—both intrinsic and extrinsic—of life. That means not only are they prepared to change the world, they understand why that drive to make things better is important.
"It's more than just volunteering, or going into the Peace Corps," he said. "Civic engagement is an approach to the world, and we need to think of it in an expansive way."
Chelsea DeLarm, a Cornell sophomore, was named Volunteer of the Year for 2011 and is deeply involved with the college's civic engagement office. (Photo by Chelsea DeLarm)
Starting this fall Cornell is offering an academic minor in civic engagement. The minor—and a commitment to service—is part of the college's long history of turning out graduates who want to have an impact on the wider world. The faculty committee that recommended the civic engagement minor defined it this way: "Civic engagement means involvement as citizens and leaders in all social spheres beyond the family, including local, state, national, and international communities."
In addition to the doctors, lawyers, and teachers who still come from Cornell, many students and alumni find themselves involved in civic engagement in a variety of ways. They are advocates for the elimination of nuclear weapons, they are philanthropists, they are elected officials.
Even before they graduate, Cornell students are involved in the world. Last year, 700 Cornell students performed some kind of community service through the college's Civic Engagement Office, according to Kara Trebil, director of civic engagement. Service is encouraged from the beginning—literally—of their time at Cornell. Each year during New Student Orientation, students head out to various places around Eastern Iowa to perform community service. This year they helped out at Mount Vernon and Lisbon parks, Lake Macbride, Tanager Place, the Matthew 25 Urban Garden in Cedar Rapids, and more.
Direct service like this isn't really the purpose of the Civic Engagement Office. The goal, Trebil said, is to get students to think about the many ways they can serve their communities, and to think about the problems they see and how they can be part of a solution. But exposing new students to service—and to the variety of opportunities that are out there—early in their Cornell careers is important, because service is a habit.
It takes time to acquire the habits of service, and that's why the college provides opportunities.
And students today are more committed to service than ever before. Nearly all new