Cornell Urban Scholars gain perspective, experience from summer program

August 26, 2008

Tywanquila Walker spent the summer working with families in New York City and came away with a new perspective on research and working with communities. She was part of the seventh class in the Cornell Urban Scholars Program (CUSP).

"I didn't expect doing research in New York City to be so challenging. I also didn't expect it to be such a valuable experience," said Walker, a Ph.D. candidate in developmental psychology who worked with the Family and Youth Development Division of Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CUCE-NYC). She created a parent-education program designed to teach parents and caregivers simple skills to enhance language development in 6- to 18-month-old infants.

"I've had the opportunity to travel to every borough; meet practitioners who work with families and children every day; and, most importantly, talk about the difficulties of working for a nonprofit and the rewards of seeing a family become self-sufficient," Walker said.

Thirty undergraduates and six graduate students took part in the eight-week program, which supports the efforts of innovative nonprofit organizations in the city and local government agencies to eliminate the fundamental causes of poverty. CUSP encourages talented Cornell students to pursue public service careers with organizations working with the city's poorest children, families, and communities. The program is administered through the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning (AAP).

"I saw it as a chance for me to experience the nonprofit world and what it adds to social justice," said Ngozi Ofoche '10, a government major at Cornell who worked with Facing History and Ourselves. The organization helps teachers cultivate a sense of civic responsibility in their students by providing classroom materials, teaching methods and professional development services.

"Their base method is a critical examination of history, namely events like the Holocaust and other genocides, that will help students to see the detrimental consequences of a society based in bigotry, intolerance, and hate," Ofoche said.

Undergraduates received certificates at a recognition ceremony July 23, and graduate students presented their work at a reception July 24 at the AAP NYC loft in Chelsea. More than 100 people attended the reception -- "more than we expected," CUSP program manager Sarah Smith said. "It was a great way to bring together Cornell staff, all the supervisors from the organizations, all the students and their families, and alumni and funders." Sponsors attending included the Heckscher Foundation for Children, which has provided funding support since the program's inception.

In a competitive process, students apply to CUSP in November and approximately 30 are accepted into the program each year.

To prepare for fieldwork, all students in the program take a course, Social Justice in the City -- "a major component of the program," Smith said. "All of our supervisors talk about how well-prepared our interns are compared with other interns. It's a pretty extensive placement process. We take a trip down in March so that the students can interview with their respective placement sites."

Students undergo an intensive three- to four-day orientation at the beginning of the summer program. Students can also follow up their site work in a fall semester course "where they get to unpack everything that they learned and write a policy recommendation paper," Smith said.

Ofoche said the experience "has definitely made me a stronger advocate for social justice, especially issues in education. I now see the nonprofit world as an option post-college. If instead I decide to go to law school, I do see myself as an advocate for these issues."

Walker has an interest in continuing family-focused, community-based research after Cornell.

"Doing research isn't always about the data you can collect and the 'perfect' results you know you're going to get," Walker said. "It's about meeting people and making connections; talking to parents and discovering what they want for their little ones. Before this fellowship, I thought participatory action research and academic research were two separate things; it's not true. It is possible to work within a community and be a part of that community."

By Dan Aloi

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