Itai Dinour -

Oct 27, 2021

The Future of Community-Engaged Learning

Last week, Cornell dedicated its new David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement. As someone whose path into public service was sparked, shaped, and nurtured by the Cornell community and as the person who now gets to facilitate the Einhorn Collaborative partnership with my alma mater, it was an emotional celebration.


Our partnership with Cornell is an integral part of our Bridging strategy which aims to provide emerging adults with opportunities that enable them to foster positive relationships with people different from themselves as they proactively contribute to their communities. When done well, such experiences help young people develop a profound understanding of their personal civic responsibility and forge a commitment to the common good, now, and well into the future.

In 2014, David Einhorn expanded his partnership with Cornell by launching Engaged Cornell, a ten-year strategy to provide all Cornell students with high-quality community-engaged learning. Recently, in recognition of David’s enduring role of supporting public engagement at Cornell, the university named the new center in his honor.

Every partnership offers an opportunity for reflection. As we reach this milestone, I am excited to share what we are learning from this collaboration.

The David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement – the Einhorn Center – supports Cornell students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are collaborating with communities – locally and around the globe – to create a more just and equitable world. The Einhorn Center launched on July 1, 2021, as an integration of the former Office of Engagement Initiatives and Cornell Public Service Center. Building on Cornell’s founding as a land-grant university and more than 35 years of expertise in nurturing student-community collaborations, the new center is an important step towards achieving the university’s public engagement mission.

The Einhorn Center connects students with high-quality engagement and service opportunities through their coursework and research, as well as efforts they undertake in their residence halls, athletics teams, student organizations, and internships. It also supports faculty and staff by providing funding opportunities, cohort programs, workshops, and consultations that build their capacity as community-engaged educators and scholars.

Community-engaged learning (CEL), or service-learning as it is known in other K-12 schools, colleges, and community organizations, is not unique to Cornell. Projects occur outside of the context of a classroom and share four important elements:

  1. Address a specific community interest, problem, or public concern;

  2. Include working with and learning from a community partner;

  3. Connect and integrate community-engaged experiences with educational content; and

  4. Include structured, documented critical reflection.

Most college students nationally report volunteering at least occasionally, but such experiences often lack at least one of the four components above that transform community-service into a learning opportunity. Together, these four practices help students develop the life-long skills, mindsets, and behaviors to become empathic, engaged members of their communities capable and motivated to work together across lines of difference to address local issues and opportunities.

There is strong evidence that community-engaged learning is an effective way to develop students’ empathy and spark a lifelong commitment to civic leadership. However, as Johns Hopkins University President, Ronald J. Daniels, recently reflected in The Atlantic, “Service learning, on its own, is not an education in democracy…it does not aim to provide students with the knowledge necessary to engage with or reshape democratic institutions. Service learning has, in this one respect, become a crutch: a way for university presidents to celebrate civic engagement without explicitly having to provide a civic education.”

While CEL, on its own, won’t address the entire civic learning gap many students experience, Cornell’s ambitious plan is serving as a model for the ways in which CEL is not a crutch, but rather a catalyst for engagement in democracy. CEL demands not just an understanding of the structures of systems but self-knowledge and motivation from which to engage. At Cornell, the Foundations for Community-Engaged Learning program helps students (along with faculty, staff, and alumni) explore who they are, the issues they are passionate about, and prepares them for critical reflection using the Being-Knowing-Doing Framework. During the Summer of 2020, COVID required Cornell to shift Foundations into a virtual offering and they graciously allowed me to participate. Over three short weeks, my purpose statement became clearer and I learned valuable, practical techniques for critical reflection that I continue to use in my personal, civic, and professional life.

Each semester, academic courses are tagged as meeting the above CEL components after a review by a faculty committee. This fall, 137 CEL tagged courses are available across disciplines. Through these courses, students become more curious about the systems and structures that contribute to the root causes or barriers to solutions for the problem they are working to address with their community partners. Students can pursue this newly sparked inquiry to understand how to “engage or reshape democracy” to address these issues through other courses and co-curricular experiences. In a recent audit of courses that don’t yet meet the CEL criteria, critical reflection was most often the missing ingredient. Cornell is currently exploring and piloting creative ways to address this gap.

Despite COVID-related disruptions, 47 percent of the Cornell Class of 2021 enrolled in at least one CEL course during their time on campus. And we know from a nationally representative survey we commissioned in March 2021, that 71 percent of current college students are interested in community service opportunities, including 68 percent of students interested in course-based CEL.

To reach all students at Cornell, the Einhorn Center is seeking to partner with its undergraduate colleges to embed CEL into curricular, co-curricular, and research experiences. Through the Engaged College initiative, colleges, beginning with the SC Johnson College of Business and the College of Human Ecology, partner with Einhorn Center staff to inventory community-engaged learning experiences including the number of CEL courses offered and enrollment trends. Then, based on this inventory, they develop and implement a college specific strategy to grow their capacity to increase the number of students engaged in co-curricular, curricular, and research based CEL. This work is largely centered on faculty and staff development, both hiring those predisposed to this work and offering mentorship, training, and incentives to new and veteran faculty to support their implementation. While it is championed by college deans, active participation by faculty, staff, and students generates greater buy-in and creates strategies to ensure that CEL fits the unique culture and pedological approach of each discipline. Alumni can play a critical role as strategy advisors and by providing mentorship, CEL opportunities and funding.

As Rachel Dunifon, Dean of the College of Human Ecology, recently reflected in an interview with the William T. Grant Foundation, “[this] university-wide initiative put a spark under the whole idea of engaged learning at Cornell, and I’ve seen a growing movement among faculty, particularly junior faculty, of embracing community engaged work.”

“[this] university-wide initiative put a spark under the whole idea of engaged learning at Cornell, and I’ve seen a growing movement among faculty, particularly junior faculty, of embracing community engaged work.”

—Rachel Dunifon, Dean of the College of Human Ecology

Complementing the college strategy, the Einhorn Center is developing innovative ways to bolster student CEL programming in partnership with residential halls, clubs, athletic teams, career services and other student and campus life units. A key role of the Einhorn Center is to streamline university-wide processes, reduce barriers, and create more equitable community partnerships as evidenced by Cornell’s community-engaged service agreement template.

High-quality CEL already exists in most colleges and universities, supported by great organizations like Campus Compact – this includes my wife, a professor at Montclair State University, who has integrated CEL into her nutrition courses. While Einhorn Collaborative’s work in higher education is anchored at Cornell University, we are working closely with the university to explore ways in which their progress can help other institutions seek a similar path. For example, Cornell recently hosted an expert in institutional change and CEL, Professor John Saltmarsh from the University of Massachusetts, Boston, for a series of public panels and presentations, to help Cornell both reflect on its progress and share with others this innovative approach. We are open to ideas and suggestions from our community for what else might be helpful.

Expanding opportunities for CEL will likely require more resources, and we hope our peers in philanthropy will rise to meet this demand by exploring how they might support similar initiatives in their own communities and alma maters. Such investments will not only foster campus-community collaborations to address current challenges, but will also help students become empathic leaders, capable of working together across lines of difference.

Beyond philanthropy, these efforts would also be dramatically accelerated by Congress reinstating “Learn & Serve,” which was defunded in 2011. Many university-based service centers were initially launched with these federal grants that also resourced service-learning initiatives in K-12 schools and community organizations. A coalition of 160 organizations is advocating for a renewed investment by the federal government to catalyze student civic participation and development at a time of increased community need.

As Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels reflected “The impact of service education has been unequivocally positive. Students who engage in service-learning opportunities in college are more likely to volunteer throughout their post-collegiate lives; to be more tolerant toward others; and to demonstrate leadership in their communities.”

“The impact of service education has been unequivocally positive. Students who engage in service-learning opportunities in college are more likely to volunteer throughout their post-collegiate lives; to be more tolerant toward others; and to demonstrate leadership in their communities.”

—Ronald J. Daniels, Johns Hopkins University President

I hope we can build upon this work at Cornell and beyond and invest in the growth of CEL. Equipped with these rich experiences and skills, we can better prepare the next generation to face the challenges before us, to become the leaders our world needs.

Itai Dinour formerly led Einhorn Collaborative’s Bridging strategy. Learn more about our work in Bridging and more about Itai. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter.