A Cornell initiative that aims to reveal the university’s histories of exclusion and inclusion through stories offered a communal opportunity to explore what it means to belong. Annalisa Raymer, director of the Community Learning and Service Partnership (CLASP), works with undergraduate students on a special course in the Education minor to uncover and document the origin story of an ongoing social justice education venture. This year, students developed digital media projects to expose how learning partnerships have fostered an inclusive learning culture for students and employees alike. In this field note, Annalisa highlights how a recent project allowed students to explore the impact CLASP has made on Cornell communities
Offering a course on community, adult education and digital storytelling, despite this instructor’s lack of up-to-date knowledge of media-making tools and techniques, what could go right?
When, at the close of the semester, students of Education 4940 – Special Topics in Education publicly screened the media they created, it was clear that much had gone right indeed. The major assignments of the Fall 2022 course culminated in producing either a digital story, an illustrated blog post, or other form of media to be submitted for jury consideration for the coming digital exhibition to be launched by the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) in 2023.
The Any Person, Many Stories (APMS) concept, originated by Melina Ivanchikova and Rob Vanderlan of Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI) was so tempting:
The aim is to foster an abiding sense of belonging for all by sparking genuine, necessary conversations about Cornell’s past, present, and future. Collectively, we will surface and share stories that tell us a more complete account of our shared history, in a way that matters to individuals and groups.
In their search for stories of connection and belonging, or for accounts of the counterparts of disconnection and exclusion, students were encouraged to look into the history of the Community Learning and Service Partnership (CLASP) or to turn to CLASP program participants.
As a learning program pairing Cornell students and employees for mutual growth and professional development, CLASP is a rich source of experiences germane to the intentions of the Any Person, Many Stories project. In CLASP, each duo is comprised of one student studying adult learning (andragogy) and one staff member who form a learning partnership with both partners focusing on the employee’s goal. Through these partnerships students learn from the experience and knowledge of staff partners, and employees acquire a dedicated mentor and ally. Learning both from one another and together, each gains another lens and understanding of the campus community and the world beyond.
Over the Fall 2022 semester, students interviewed employee and student program participants. A theme emerged, one pertaining to getting acquainted with fellow Cornellians who share the geography of campus and meet interesting people with myriad interests and talents. In short, “take time to talk and expect to be delighted.” Guests visiting the evening class include Melina Ivanchikova, who spoke about the origins of the APMS project and shared some of the exhibition materials already submitted. Another visitor welcomed to class was Stephen Devlen, Assistant Director-Labor and Staff Relations for University Human Resources. Steve first shared how he, in a prior role, was first convinced by the business case for encouraging staff to study with CLASP. Steve proceeded next to recount a great example of storytelling making a huge difference in ways much in keeping with the aims of APMS when filmmaker Patrick Shen approached Cornell about making a project he had in mind.
In setting to interview janitors at well-respected institutions of higher education, filmmaker Shen wanted to “take our cultural definitions of wisdom and heroics and flip them on their head” (Farley, 2014). A number of Ivies turned Shen down, but among those who embraced the concept, Cornell was the only university to have two custodial employees featured in the film. Cornell’s Director of Facilities at the time, Rob Obsborne, was completely in favor of the project. Ultimately, the resulting film, The Philosopher Kings (Shen and Bennick, 2009) followed eight custodians at seven institutions, providing a glimpse not only into their workdays, but also portraying the richness of the individuals’ lives, each with their own interests, sorrows and triumphs. The film’s national tour kicked off at Cornell where it was received with great acclaim by viewers from every echelon of campus. Perhaps especially pleased were staff members in Building Care and other campus service units, as well as the featured Cornellians, Jim Evener and Gary Napieracz (both now retired). Senior Lecturer in Global Development Annalisa Raymer, who also serves as the director of CLASP, shows the film in each of the courses she teaches in adult learning, including the 2022 special topics course with APMS.
For their story, student collaborators Michaela Postredny and Angel Kahala interviewed employee Christy Atiles. Both were quite impressed with Christy’s devotion to animals and in admiration of her steadfast pursuit of varied interests. Michaela said:
Christy’s story truly inspires me to pursue my passions and turn them into realities… She has taught me so many things and motivated me in ways I cannot explain. Christy is such an amazing, positive, hard-working, smart, motivated, and selfless woman and I am truly honored to be able to tell a part of her story.
Suyifa Ali and Alexis Rooney enjoyed interviewing CLASP participant Garry Gale, a greeter at Risley Dinning Hall. Garry is an outgoing person who likes to put everyone at ease, and toward this end he learns welcoming phrases in several different languages. In addition to Garry, Sufiya also spoke with Tibetan student (and CLASP learning partner Tenzin Kunsang) for her story focusing language learning, Inclusion Through Language. Sufiya reflected:
Researching the language programs on campus and hearing the stories of Tenzin and Garry made me want to challenge myself to work toward language learning once again. As a previous CLASP learning partner, I have seen how mutually beneficial the learning partnership can be and have also seen how useful it can be for partnerships working toward language learning. Overall, I am very excited to have been able to highlight the stories that affect the overall inclusion and belonging here at Cornell.
Caitlin Rogoff set her sights on telling a student’s story. She got in touch with Cornell alumna Sarah Wesley, who graduated in May 2020. Sarah was a dedicated CLASP participant who served as student learning partner with multiple employees for several semesters. Caitlin and Sarah hit it off, and their collaboration yielded an arresting and authentic account of Sarah finding in CLASP a place where she belonged at Cornell and where her contributions were clearly valued. Caitlin shared:
It was such a privilege to be able to interview Sarah Wesley, and I am thankful to her for her participation in this project. I have learned so much from her and the experience she had with CLASP. Hearing her story proved the strong sense of belonging within the Cornell community that CLASP provides to its members. This story is a great example of the purpose of the Any Person, Many Stories project, which encourages Cornell to provide more opportunities for inclusion among its community members.
Other members of the course had works in progress at the time of the screening. Alayna Earl interviewed Carmelo Melice, employee, lifelong learner and creative artist, and Emily Abbruzzese interviewed CLASP director Raymer. Class members thanked everyone who came to their public screening. Angel Kahala added, “After having presented my story, I found myself proud of my work. … I was really happy to hear that people loved my voice.”
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