The Upstate Institute: Students Contribute to the Community

It may well be the most incorrect perception Colgate students have of our local community. It is definitely the most repeated clich?e offered by students on those all too rare occasions when discussion turns to the community beyond the hill. Almost all of us have heard it or said it at one point or another: “Madison County is one of the poorest counties in New York State.” Madison County is not the poorest county in New York State. In fact, its nowhere near, ranking 24th in terms of median household income of the 62 counties in New York State. Unfortunately, it has become a truism of sorts among students, symptomatic of the collective student body’s overall lack of exposure to the region.From a report by Economics Professor and Associate Dean of the Faculty Jill Tiefenthaler, a few facts: 83.3 percent of the population in Madison County has completed at least a high school education, which is higher than New York state’s overall percentage 79.1. Compared to other Central New York counties, Madison County has a significantly higher percentage of residents with college degrees. As Director of The Upstate Institute, Tiefenthaler does a lot of work on the Upstate New York region. The Upstate Institute was created by Colgate in the Fall of 2003. The Upstate Institute’s mission statement reads: “The Upstate Institute creates linkages between Colgate University and the regional community to engage students, faculty, staff and residents in research and a reciprocal transfer of knowledge that will enhance the economic, social and cultural capacity of the area and sustain the environment. These projects provide a model of community collaboration and civic engagement for our students and within higher education. The Institute values scholarly collaboration as a way to support the region.” There are currently 26 Upstate Institute Faculty fellows and 15 Upstate Student Fellows working on projects ranging from an economic impact study of the Oneida Indian Nation to the development of local wind-power regulations. Tiefenthaler explains, “The Upstate Institute is involved in exploring the large question: How can institutions of higher learning contribute to the landscape in which they live?”Research like Tiefenthaler’s report is one way to do so. By amassing scholarly research related to the Upstate region, the Upstate Institute is meant to serve as a resource for those seeking expert knowledge about the region. Associate Professor of History Charles Banner-Haley is a native Upstate New Yorker with family roots dating back to the 1850s. His research of African Americans in Upstate New York began early in his graduate school years when he stood alone as the only historian doing work on the topic. According to Banner-Haley, there are now dozens studying the region’s African American history. Banner-Haley is currently working on a two-volume history of African Americans in Broome, Chemung, and Steuben Counties. Several other faculty members engage in collaborative projects with student fellows to lend their resources, expertise and practical support to local organizations. Seniors Meghan VanHorn, Kristin Coomber and Alison Yeltson have been working over the past semester for the Madison County Teen Institute Program. The Program teaches local teenagers valuable life and leadership skills that will help them to make healthy life choices and, in turn, influence their peers to do the same. Under the guidance of Associate Professor of Psychology Doug Johnson, Vanhorn, Coomber, and Yeltson analyzed surveys and data to compile a report in order to develop suggestions on how to improve the program’s success. “It is important,” says Yeltson, “because we are making a practical difference in their program, which has definite intent to benefit local communities.” Working in partnership with Madison County CAP and the Madison County Department of Social Sciences, COVE Director Marnie Terhune, Tiefenthaler and junior Carlee Leraris contribute their knowledge and expertise to the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program now in its third year. Stacy Alvord, who works with Colgate on the VITA program, serves as Executive Director of Madison County CAP. She serves on the Upstate Community Board consisting of regional non-profit directors, local businesspeople, development agency staff members, and health care representatives. Alvord credits “Dean Jane Pinchin for the vision to realize the potential of our region and by creating the Upstate Institute as a catalyst to building on our strengths. Together, we can do what no one can do alone. Upstate Institute shares with CAP a spirit of collaboration. I now serve on the Community Advisory Board for Upstate Institute and look forward to many more projects together with the students and professors at Colgate University.”The Upstate Institute was formally introduced to the campus body with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech on the University’s theme of a “Dialogue on Higher Education and Upstate New York.” Senator Clinton’s visit was part of a conference organized by Dean Pinchin. The Senator’s speech focused on bringing economic growth to the region and was notable for angering the Canadians in attendance. Since its introduction, The Upstate Institute has thus far been a successful model of the service based learning pedagogy. But even before The Upstate Institute, faculty members have been involved in sponsoring scholarly research and service based learning programs throughout the region. For instance, Professor of Geography Ellen Kraly coupled her immigration and refugee research on Upstate New York to create a service based learning component that brings geography students together to work for the Utica Refugee Center. Students primarily assist the Center in English language training. Kraly says the project, which has been ongoing for the past 12 years, “gives students the opportunity to look more critically at the processes they are studying in scholarly work. It makes the literature come alive while also providing a source of assistance from our University – which has so many resources – to the community.” The Upstate Institute has complemented her work at the Center, providing a forum for interested faculty, administration and students to work collaboratively, to share their experiences and to create new ideas. Ultimately, Kraly is hoping “the Upstate Institute will bring tangible benefits – such as economic growth or greater institutional stability – to the community. I envision the Upstate Institute involving more students so that they can gain more knowledge and empathy, more connection to this area so that students can understand where their resources are coming from.” The Upstate Institute hopes to involve more students with the inauguration of the first session of its Field School this summer, hiring Student Fellows to work collaboratively with community organizations on projects ranging from economic development to environmental audits to social services. Similar to the departmental summer research programs, Student Fellows will receive a stipend of $3,750 and work for a period of ten weeks. Senior Kevin Casey McAvey worked as a Student Fellow this past summer, compiling a need-based assessment for Chenango County United Way. He is now at work on a welfare history of Madison County for the Department of Social Services. McAvey said his experience this past summer and this year working under Professor Tiefenthaler influenced him to apply to public policy graduate school where he will study social and welfare economics. McAvey says, “One of the best things to come out of The Upstate Institute is the things you learn about the local community and all that needs to be done in just the 20 miles that surround our campus.”As Alvord of CAP explains, “It is a win-win situation, CAP receives support for our mission and Upstate Institute is able to fulfill their mission of strengthening partnerships in the community to promote economic and community development.”Most importantly for students, The Upstate Institute gives “an opportunity to test their knowledge in real world settings, become engaged in the community and develop an awareness and appreciation for something larger than themselves.” With any luck, students might one day graduate with recollection of the region’s rich history, the cultural diversity of Utica, the abolitionist movement that flourished in the region during the 19th century, or the importance of protecting open spaces from development rather than a hands-off, apathetic notion of how poor the area is. The Upstate Institute is doing important work towards that ultimate end.