Many Miles to Go for Public Service: Why Spring Break Just Won’t Cut It

By Chris Skawski

Cornell University, a land grant college, is tasked with disseminating the knowledge it accumulates to the community that surrounds it. It has a state-mandated duty to employ its vast resources and research in order to implement community-centered programs. It accomplishes this primarily through its series of Cooperative Extension offices, located in over 50 counties across New York State.

Cornell students, however, are under no such obligation.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County occupies a long, low, gray building at the north end of the Fall Creek neighborhood. Between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. every day, the parking lot fills and empties as employees come and go. Long after the last full-time employee clocks out, however, the parking lot continues to fill and empty as people come–sometimes with children–to some of the many courses taught out of the building’s classrooms.

Offering instruction in everything from environmental science to nutritional cooking, CCE of Tompkins County attempts to live up to Cornell’s land grant charter. Passed in 1862 (and accessible via the Cornell website), this law allowed for public lands to be used for colleges and universities, provided that they “promote the liberal and practical education” of the local population. CCE also partners with local youth club and community resources to produce fundraisers, fairs, livestock shows, children’s camps, and after-school programs.

Buffalo City School District students participating in CCE’s Farm-to-School program.

The employees of CCE are full-time. They live and work in the community in which their chosen CCE office is located.

CCE is involved with just about everything pertaining to quality of life and has offices in over fifty counties in New York. Traditional agriculture classes are almost absent from CCE NYC, but, as shown in a recent article written for the department’s site by Melissa Cheri, alternative agriculture and cutting-edge science increase productivity in urban centers.

One of the most noteworthy contributions to local development made by Cornell is its commitment to 4-H programs. 4-H, a nationwide organization that focuses on positive youth development and outdoor education, received federal funding to be established at the land grant colleges in each state. For New York, that means Cornell. Many thousands of kids take part in Cornell-sponsored camp, club, and outreach activities.

And the benefits are clear. Tompkins County CCE puts out a yearly statement reporting the clubs, services, programs, and classes offered and the community-based initiatives that make up CCE’s mandate. By providing programs that the county then does not have to pay for, CCE saved Tompkins County around $400,000 in 2014; this is not an insignificant sum at the local level, to say nothing of the human impact of outreach, mentorship, and education programs offered yearly to Tompkins County youth.

14,000 undergraduates grace Cornell’s halls every year. According to the Public Service Center of Cornell, over 7,000 students and alumni volunteer in community organizing programs each year. This is not a small number, but it’s still just a fraction of the Cornell community. Even worse, in 2012, a mere 69 Cornell students took a federal work-study job at CCE, working from six to 20 hours a week during the course of their Cornell careers.

Meanwhile, Associations for the International Exchange of Students in Economics and Commerce (AIESEC) and Alternative Spring Break programs have no shortage of applicants. Their quarter cards show up everywhere, and their (particularly AIESEC Cornell’s) chalking can be found most places on North Campus. They have a huge base of support in Cornell’s Public Service Center, and members participate in service learning across the globe in a variety of programs. Just the “Volunteer Abroad” section of the AIESEC contains enough options to make one’s head spin, offering everything from literacy programs to home-building to elder care to environmental conservation. Every field of public service is open to Cornell students, at home and abroad, during breaks.

Those who decide to do a trip like this over spring break give up that week in late March which could have been spent on trips with friends out of town or country. But is one week really enough to improve literacy in a country where you may not even speak the native language? Or build a home when you have no prior construction experience? How much impact one can really make in those seven days is not entirely clear.

For this reason, organizations such as AIESEC can appear somehow fake, or at least misguided in aim. Why send so many people abroad to do superficial work when they could be applying their talents to communities closer to home? Maybe a trip to a foreign country looks better on a resume, or seems more fun to college students. Perhaps a week of “making a difference” constitutes a satisfying and socially valuable detour on the road to career-hood. Or perhaps people simply want to make a difference when they can. But the idea of being able to make a quick difference before returning to one’s real life is itself a damaging one.

It can be comforting to donate or to volunteer for a week. To own a socially-conscious laptop sticker or to fly halfway around the world to “improve literacy rates.” To spend all day thinking about how much more money Cornell could be giving to 4-H programs. The unfortunate bottom line is that the real work of public service is long and slow and unglamorous. The trouble with spring break trips or AIESEC or even Into the Streets is that these programs end. They allow us to spend our time, think our job done, and go home. And that can be dangerous. Absolutely we should volunteer, or “voluntour,” or do what we can. But we should never think that the work has been completed. After all, there are 70 Cooperative Extension work-study positions available in Tompkins County.

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