Nov. 14, 2012
Cornell undergrads expand Ithaca boys' horizons
For one morning, six boys from Ithaca's DeWitt Middle School got to be big men on campus. As part of a program to help them develop strategies for regulating their behavior and emotions, the DeWitt students visited Cornell Oct. 23 to experience a tantalizing slice of college life with their assigned undergraduate buddies.
The event was the first in a long-term series of planned activities to bring the two groups of students into each other's worlds.
"For the boys, the sincere attention and interest of college students, sustained over nine months, adds a new voice to the chorus at DeWitt telling them they matter and that college is a real possibility," said program organizer Bryan Duff, a lecturer in teacher education and faculty fellow for the Townhouses residence community. "For the Cornell students, time spent with the boys is a reminder that we at Cornell work in a 'precious' environment and also that we have a lot to learn and to offer."
That morning, the boys and their Cornell buddies explored buildings, departments and topics that were new to many of them - tasting experiments and modeling the ingredients in milk with lecturer in food science Alicia Orta-Ramirez; playing in a traditional Javanese gamelan ensemble with music performance lecturer Chris Miller; and painting masks inspired by artifacts in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art's visible storage gallery.
Later, amid the lunchtime bustle in Okenshields dining hall, the middle-schoolers and undergrads relaxed and talked about Halloween, Cornell Orchards cider and everything in between. "Lunch is my favorite part," said one seventh-grader, marveling over the self-serve Cornell Dairy ice cream.
"It's fun for the kids to see all these people and fun things you can do on campus," said Alex Young '15, a biology major. "They get to see that there are bigger things out there. The boys asked if we knew everyone who goes here. We tried to explain to them how big Cornell is. It's hard for them to realize."
Abbie Clifford, a sophomore in the ILR School, agreed: "I'd never been to the Physical Sciences Building, Lincoln Hall or the Johnson Museum."
DeWitt teaching assistant Doreen Smith said Principal Mac Knight understands how important outreach activities are for high-needs students. "Our population is very diverse, but a lot of my students don't see much outside of their personal community," Smith said. "This event is an opportunity to get them out to see different people and places. We could never have made this happen without Mac's support and assistance."
Duff said students struggling with behavior and academics are accustomed, even in programs like DeWitt's, to being singled out for special treatment that essentially highlights their shortcomings. "The exchange model here is different, putting the boys in a position of strength and control just as often as it does the Cornell students," he said.
Duff plans to give the middle-schoolers plenty of opportunities to do this. They have already hosted several Cornell students at DeWitt for a tour, lunch and to watch a U.S. citizenship naturalization ceremony. In the spring, Duff hopes to arrange a friendly quiz show between the boys and Cornell students featuring topics favoring middle-schoolers' knowledge.
For now, Young is content knowing that at least one boy's world had expanded a bit that day already: "After the sessions, he told me, 'We thought college was stupid, but this is cool.'"
Sarah Thompson is a freelance writer based in Trumansburg, N.Y.