SC Johnson Grad Students Master Community-Engaged Learning

by Jonathan Miller

By: Staff
A student sits writing at a desk with a pen and paper.

Critical reflection, understanding one’s own role in a project, is an essential tool in community-engaged learning.

As a first-year master’s student at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Anamay Viswanathan, MS ’25, wanted to understand why some New York State farmers were adopting methods of regenerative agriculture while others were more resistant. So he did what any aspiring social science researcher would do: he interviewed them.

“I thought of the farmers as clients, and I treated the interactions as data-gathering exercises,” he recalled. “In hindsight, I realize that this was a great community-building opportunity. My research is about more than just the data the farmers are providing me. It’s about creating a partnership with those people.”

Viswanathan’s realization came courtesy of a six-week pilot course in community-engaged learning that he and 11 other Cornell SC Johnson College of Business graduate students completed in April. It was the first course at the College explicitly designed to train MA and PhD students in the principles of community-engaged learning and in methods for teaching those principles to others. Topics ranged from critical reflection and cultural humility to philosophies of teaching and learning.

Community Engagement Complements Academics

Leaders at the SC Johnson College hope the new cadre of TAs and course assistants will help advance the goal of the Engaged College Initiative to have every student in the Dyson School, Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, and Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management complete an engaged learning project in collaboration with a community partner. Each project culminates in the student’s critical reflection, assessing their role in the effort’s goals and outcomes.

Linda Barrington, SC Johnson College Associate Dean for Strategy and Societal Impact, said the pilot course was designed in part to gauge interest on the part of graduate students and faculty. “There was a chicken-and-egg question as we were thinking about this,” she said. “Do you wait for a demand from faculty who say they can’t get started doing more community-engaged learning because the TAs aren’t there, or do you train up the TAs and create the supply so that faculty don’t have that as a barrier?”

Barrington was pleased to see strong demand for the course among graduate students from all three of the college’s schools. “The next piece is, how do we connect them to faculty who are doing these courses?”

Suzanne Shu, Dean of Faculty and Research for the SC Johnson College and John Dyson Professor of Marketing in the Dyson School, said community engagement is “built into the DNA and the ethos of Cornell.”

Unlike other top business schools, she said, SC Johnson College “has always been a place that matches traditional academic work with really going out and engaging with a community. Whether it’s the undergraduate side at Dyson or Nolan or the MBA side at Johnson, we’re not just teaching people finance and accounting and marketing and other academic subjects, but we’re focusing on how you can use what you learn to go out and have a positive impact on society. With that as our guiding principle, a program like this is a perfect fit for us.”

Training Teaching Assistants in Community-Engaged Learning

Students sit at desks and smile at the camera.
Eleven graduate students from across the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business are now certified as community-engaged learning teaching assistants.

The Community Engaged-Learning TA Training Program course was taught by Amy Somchanhmavong, Associate Director of Global Community-Engaged Learning Programs at the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement. It was designed by Somchanhmavong and other Einhorn Center colleagues in consultation with the Engaged College Advisory Committee as part of a university-wide process to encourage colleges and schools to incorporate high-quality community-engaged learning into their curricula.

Somchanhmavong said the College of Business is doing “hopeful work in embedding community engagement as part of the business education.  It is amazing to have disciplines of business join other academic disciplines to work with communities in addressing social issues for a greater impact and better world.” For the Einhorn Center, she said, “the question became, ‘How then do we cultivate community-engaged learning, and how do we support it?’ We decided that we could provide infrastructure support and help faculty members rethink their course designs in light of community-engaged principles. Having TAs and course assistants trained in community-engaged learning is a big help in that.”

The training not only enhances the graduate students’ suite of marketable skills, but it is meant equally to enrich their own learning experiences.

“One of the most insightful pieces of this course is the idea of pre-reflection,” Viswanathan said. “We’re used to feedback and reflection being a backward-looking thing. Pre-reflection is about critically assessing what’s about to happen and the various presumptions and preconceptions people bring into an interaction.”

Yuktha Bhadane, MS ‘25, also a first-year master’s student at Dyson and a TA in climate finance, said her biggest takeaway was the need to “unlearn my colonial mindset” when thinking about her work in the nonprofit sector. As an undergraduate in India, she tried to get low-income communities to participate in sustainable development projects. “There was always the sense of ‘A gives to B, we give something to someone, this is what they need,’” she said. “Now I realize I could have captured so much from the communities in terms of knowledge. Next time I will do things differently.”

Rohang Wang, a sixth-year marketing PhD student who expects to graduate soon, says her training should be a bonus for her as she enters the academic job market. But she said the lessons she learned will help her in other ways, too.

“A lot of this is universal,” she said. “A lot of what we were discussing in this program was how to talk to people, how to be non-threatening, how to be respectful, how to think in their shoes. It’s not just about engaging communities, it’s about how to live.”