Ithaca: The Community Beyond Campus

The multitude of performances, athletic events, guest lectures, and social gatherings happening at any given time at Cornell makes it easy to occupy your free time without leaving campus. This fact was one of the many reasons I chose to come to Cornell, as this packed schedule builds a strong community of students centered around the campus. That said, my Cornell experience would have been severely limited had I never taken opportunities to engage in activities and programs within the Ithaca community.

A photoof the sun setting over Ithaca Commons

For context, Ithaca is a small city at the base of Cayuga Lake with a permanent population of approximately 30,000. The central area of the city is very walkable and there is a public bus system that allows you to access more peripheral parts. Beyond being home to three colleges and universities, Ithaca is generally known for its quirky community and plethora of festivals throughout the year. In my four years in Ithaca I’ve attended the Summer Concert Series, Winter Lights Festival, Wizarding Weekend, Apple Harvest Festival, Ithaca Festival, and many more.

Beyond these large community events, I’m thankful that I also found other ways to engage with the Ithaca community through my coursework and clubs. I’m a senior majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in education. I’ve always loved working with kids and am interested in the ways that non-formal education can supplement the traditional K-12 education system, particularly for STEM content. Two of the four education courses I’ve taken toward my minor have included weekly fieldwork in local schools. In my first year, I spent four hours a week in a kindergarten classroom at a public elementary school in the heart of downtown Ithaca. I served as a teaching assistant, working 1:1 with students needing individualized instruction, helping lead class activities, and playing on the playground with the students during recess. In college you spend almost all of your time around 18-22 year-olds, so I loved the opportunity to leave campus each week and engage with a totally different group of people. The kindergarteners always brightened my day and gave me the opportunity to forget about looming prelims, problem sets, and lab reports. This experience also allowed me to improve my skills as a teacher and learn a lot about the local education system. Ithaca is generally considered a pretty progressive community, so it was interesting to learn about the school district’s initiatives to foster more diverse schools and support students from low-resource backgrounds. I was so excited when I bumped into a group of the kindergarteners and their parents the following summer at the movie theater, and they all remembered me!

A photo of students working on a mosaic
Madeline and Hayley working on a mosaic at the Sciencenter

I’ve also had the opportunity to engage with the local community through outreach events hosted by The Society of Women Engineers (SWE). As a Girl Scout Day committee member for SWE my freshman year, we planned and hosted several events throughout the year to bring Girl Scout troops from all of Central New York to campus and earn a STEM-related patch. This was another opportunity to learn about and interact with the community outside of Cornell. Beyond events with Girl Scouts, SWE also frequently partners with local schools, the local library, and the Ithaca Sciencenter.

Service to our local community is a large part of SWE’s work and of many other student organizations. For example, the brothers of Alpha Phi Omega, a co-ed service fraternity, offer hundreds of volunteer and service opportunities each year within the Cornell and Ithaca communities. Women in Computing at Cornell holds weekly student-taught Girls Who Code classes for local students. Students and faculty members also volunteer their time with the Cornell Prison Education Program, working with local incarcerated individuals to earn college degrees. These are just a few of many ways to engage with the local community, particularly through service. I also know students who have joined community knitting clubs, participated in local adult sports leagues, and worked for local businesses. The City of Ithaca is a vital part of Cornell, and I encourage every student to take an opportunity to explore and interact with the Ithaca community!

~Madeline ’20, mechanical engineering