July 26, 2013

Urban Scholars share stories of public service

This summer, 14 Cornell undergraduates gained hands-on public policy work experience as part of the Cornell Urban Scholars Program (CUSP) in New York City. Students shared stories and lessons that they learned from their internships at a reception July 24 at the 92nd Street Y.

The program, which has been on hiatus for the past four years due to funding, is a collaboration with Cornell’s Public Service Center and Engaged Learning + Research. The students took a field preparation course in the spring taught by Engaged Learning + Research Director Richard Kiely, and were matched with a nonprofit agency based on their professional and academic goals for eight weeks of paid professional experience, coursework and engagement with nonprofit organizations.

“It’s hard for undergrads to find internships, and this program really guides you through the process,” said Haley Jones ’15, who was placed with New York City Health and Hospitals Corp.

CUSP has placed more than 300 students since its launch in 2001. Funded by gifts from the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, the Heckscher Foundation for Children, the university and alumni, the program trains participants to use critical reflection to challenge their realities and to learn to transform them.

“I believe that when we lead lives with purpose and conviction we really can make a difference as change agents,” said Donna Cao ’15, who was a youth and justice intern at the Children’s Defense Fund.

“Stories are how we make sense of the world and allow us to reimagine a different future,” said Luis Martinez, CUSP coordinator, who lived with the students at the 92Y, where they were offered subsidized housing and cultural activities.

Daniel Muniz-Garcia ’16 interned at the Legal Aid Society’s employment law unit. He helped low-income residents through the society’s Access to Benefits Hotline, which provides pro bono services. “It was great knowing … I was able to give them some sort of relief,” said Muniz-Garcia. “It was empowering to know that just by listening I was doing a lot.”

Annaclaire Dilanni-Miller ’15 interned at The New School/Inside Schools, where she raised awareness about public school education through journalism. The experience helped her realize the power of the media, after an article she wrote about a rally at City Hall against high-stakes testing garnered attention online.

For Esthefania Rodriguez ’14, CUSP offered a chance to look at a clinical setting through a social justice lens and apply what she’s learned in her classes. She was placed at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she shadowed a child life specialist.

“This internship has helped me become more aware of communication with patients,” Rodriguez explained. “I’ve learned how important it is to gain the trust of the child and treat the child not only physically, but also emotionally.”

Rodriguez’ supervisor, Laura Marie Romeo ’09, is a former CUSP participant who had interned in the same program in 2008, which hired her after she graduated. She was excited about the opportunity to mentor as an alumna.

“[The program] was a great way for me to be introduced to the health care field and to figure out what I wanted to do,” she said. Back on campus, Romeo used the skills she learned through CUSP to help revise the bias-incident policy in dorms.

An optional post-program course is available to students in the fall who are interested in integrating their learning with research and writing for social change. As additional funding becomes available, the program hopes to expand to include more students and to add a graduate-level component.

Kristen Tauer ’10 is a freelance writer in New York City.