PHOTO BY DON COCHRAN
by Mary LeClair
For more than 15 years, Professor of Sociology Jack Harris P'02, P'06, along with many of his faculty colleagues, has been building synergies between the needs of the Geneva community and the campus' dedication to community-engaged learning. In stride with the Colleges' long history of community engagement, Harris has been placing senior sociology students in consultancies in the surrounding region to help solve real-life challenges, offering them the opportunity to learn while making meaningful contributions to Geneva.
PROFESSOR JACK HARRIS
"The partnerships are truly exercises in citizenship aimed at improving the Geneva community and engaging students in authentic and solvable problems," Harris says.
His efforts have cultivated productive relationships with community leaders who seek fresh perspectives and want to collaboratively develop solutions. Representatives from a myriad of agencies such as Geneva Housing Authority and the Geneva Business Improvement District join Harris' classroom and provide the fledgling senior sociologists with ideas and issues that need research and recommendations. The students and community partners then work one-on-one to develop and implement strategies to assist.
"It is a partnership in that it is a give and take," Harris explains. "The community agency has an idea and students work with them to identify the project, formalize the agreement and then complete it. Over the life of the project, the students need to go back and forth with the client to refine the study."
This approach to service learning opens communication and creates a platform for dialog between students and community members. Students are afforded the opportunity to present their work in a number of settings such as city council meetings, non-profit agency board sessions, and on campus at Senior Symposium and Community Based Research forums. "It opens issues to a wider audience," says Harris. "The students learn that they have practical sociological skills, that ideas have consequences, and that there is a community out there with enormous knowledge."
Harris' work is just one piece of the Hobart and William Smith culture of service that educates students to become civic leaders. Known as the Geneva Partnership, the initiative was established in the fall of 2007 by President Mark D. Gearan to serve as a model to identify, expand and focus the good work that has been done between the Geneva community and Hobart and William Smith, honoring the dedicated history of partnership that has existed since Hobart was founded in 1822.
"The Geneva Partnership is about leveraging the Colleges' resources to continue to make the City of Geneva and the surrounding area an even more vibrant place to live," says Gearan. The partnership focuses on developing seven key areas: education, economic development, vitality of cultural life, civic engagement, well-being of families and children, the environment, and public safety and community-building. "Part of attending Hobart and William Smith is living in the community of Geneva. This is a way to not only be helpful to the community but to teach students good citizenship."
Under the direction of Katie Flowers, the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL) is the Colleges' administrative center for service work. Flowers connects students who have an interest in civic engagement with community partners. As local boards identify needs—whether for demographic studies, impact of services analysis, or tutors, for example—they come to Flowers so that students can be offered the chance to provide the needed support.
The volume of assistance provided through these collaborative opportunities is impressive. Last year, the community service contribution of students and employees in the Geneva area is estimated to be more than 190,000 hours. This is the equivalent of 4,760 forty-hour work weeks, or 91 full-time jobs. One of the biggest recipients of student services are school children. Last academic year, more than 180 America Reads and America Counts tutors—all HWS students —worked with 210 local children in reading and math skills, serving about 7,300 hours.
"We're fortunate to have positive relationships with local and regional agencies," says Flowers. "I'm confident that when an HWS student is engaging with the many wonderful community partners, they are receiving as much as they give. It is a reciprocity that mutually benefits all involved."
Another office constantly tapped by the local community is The Finger Lakes Institute (FLI), which provides environmental expertise to citizens, municipalities and watershed agencies through research, public lectures and seminars and teacher training. Established in 2000, the Institute serves as a clearinghouse for information on the health and vitality of the Finger Lakes to the greater Geneva area. "I believe the Finger Lakes Institute connects the Colleges and the broader Finger Lakes Region," says FLI Director Lisa Cleckner. "Our partnership with the community is why we are here, serving as good stewards and promoters of this great resource of the Finger Lakes."
Professor of Economics and Interim Provost and Dean of Faculty Pat McGuire explains that even though the service learning benefit to the community has been the focus of the past decade, it should not overshadow the economic partnership that the Colleges have with the community. In economic studies that span more than two decades, McGuire has sought to quantify the financial value of the Colleges to the community. His latest study released in March 2011 found that the total spending impact of the Colleges on the Geneva area is estimated to be nearly $131 million per year.
McGuire adds that above the total annual spending, the Colleges have a multiplier effect. The Colleges spend more than $40 million in annual compensation; employees then use that compensation to purchase goods and services which is an additional revenue stream to local businesses. This revenue stream then promotes job creation in the community. He also notes that the Colleges have been a good economic stabilizer for an area that has witnessed a downturn in industrial development.
But in no way does McGuire find the relationship one-sided. "The essence of the relationship is an interdependence; you can't have one without the other. No one layer is more important than another," says McGuire. "Part of the excitement of Geneva is the added benefit to city life that exists because of the Colleges. The community benefits from that interdependence. It's not a thread; it is an interwoven fabric."
Assistant Professor of Architectural Studies Kirin Makker is a relative newcomer to Geneva. Arriving three years ago, she wasted little time before walking downtown to meet business owners and entrepreneurs to seek out new internships for students interested in design, applied arts, and planning careers. Her students have done promotional work for the Cracker Factory gallery and performance space, designed and installed exhibit furniture for the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center and fabricated a bike rack for a business owner downtown.
"In their classes, our students learn about the power of design and how little changes in the built environment can improve city life. I believe our students should struggle with trying to implement some of what they learn in the classroom by getting involved and experiencing it," says Makker. "I want them to come back in future years not just to visit HWS, but also to check-in on Geneva, the place where they worked and that was a significant component to their learning."
One young alumnus, Josh Strenger '09, believes this is true. While an anthropologysociology student, Strenger worked in many capacities with the local community such as the city's economic development office, with the city planner, and through internships with the city mayor and Finger Lakes Railway.
Strenger, who is now an analyst for the Department of State in Washington, D.C., says that when he first began working in Geneva, he was amazed at the openness of the community. "They cared about what I thought. The Geneva community is a caring group of folks who want to see Hobart and William Smith students succeed. They see us as growing and they are taking a mentorship role in that growth. There is definitely a partnership. In reality we support each other."
Samantha Tripoli '11 was also welcomed by the residents she encountered while engaged with her research team's senior sociology project on the revitalization of the downtown area. "I was impressed by the passion that Geneva residents have for the community. Everyone is so optimistic about Geneva's future. Their passion and commitment is very inspiring."
Bob Doeblin of the Geneva Housing Authority has worked with the Colleges on several projects. Some have been with Harris' class that have, for example, helped the housing authority conduct surveys on rent and property management satisfaction. Doeblin also works on projects with CCESL and the Office of Intercultural Affairs where students with technology savvy have helped seniors with computer issues.
"It has been overall completely a positive experience," says Doeblin. "We keep accomplishing things we wouldn't be able to do without the Colleges' assistance. The residents of Geneva have come to depend on the HWS community and especially the students. They are comfortable with the fact that students are around. They are used to them being here. In turn, I hope that we are providing a great location for them to study. The Colleges have always been a part of my life and I think that's true for most in Geneva."
Professor of Public Policy and Political Science Craig Rimmerman has spent much of his life studying politics, activism and service. In July, the revised fourth edition of his book The New Citizenship: Unconventional Politics, Activism, and Service was released.
Being an author and expert with a 25-year history teaching HWS students allows him an opportunity to create a 360-degree-view of the citizenship that has formed between HWS and the Geneva community. Rimmerman credits the Colleges with increasing faculty involvement and making improvements in the administration that have made it easier for members of the community to find assistance. But it's the students who he believes have truly created the bond.
"I think we've come a long way in the past 20 years in our ability to build positive relationships with many organizations," says Rimmerman. "But I believe it is our students who have built that bridge. We have outstanding young people whose maturity and dedication is impressive. They could choose to do other things with their time but they are driven by learning from and contributing to the Geneva Community."