Second Year Seminar teaches real-world problem solving

Cornell College sophomores are getting first-hand experiences exploring what it’s like to put their education to use in solving community problems.

The Second Year Seminar (SYS) was created as part of Cornell’s new Ingenuity Curriculum and is all about citizenship in practice. This is the first year for this new course, and professors are finding unique ways for students to get involved in the local community and make a difference during the 18 days of their SYS block.

Housing is a Human Right

Students receive a tour of Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids
Students receive a tour of the Willis Dady shelter in Cedar Rapids with Executive Director Alicia Faust.

Ringer Distinguished Professor of Sociology Tori Barnes-Brus created her course, Housing is a Human Right, as an SYS that took place during Block 1.

Barnes-Brus says the SYS is the liberal arts in action.

“These courses provide students opportunities to intentionally and consistently apply what they are learning to real-world problems,” she said.

And there’s nothing more real than homelessness. 

Students in this class spent the block researching topics to support Willis Dady Homeless Services, a Cedar Rapids organization with which Barnes-Brus has had a long-standing relationship. The research projects included topics such as detailing best practices for building client self-esteem and developing tiny house villages to offer more transitional housing and reduce tent encampments. 

Students present information to a staff member at Willis Dady Homeless Services
Donivan Jones, Chana Myrville, and Jason Dodson talk with Willis Dady Housing Services Director Lauren White about their final project on supportive permanent housing.

Barnes-Brus said these projects were helpful to the staff at Willis Dady because the demands of running the shelter and homeless services prevent them from having the time to explore these issues in-depth.

Housing is a Human Right classmates stand in front of the sign of Willis Dady Homeless Services
Housing is a Human Right classmates stand in front of the sign of Willis Dady.

“I wanted students to come away from this class with two key ideas,” Barnes-Brus said. “First, housing instability and homelessness are structural issues that could be addressed by our society. Second, students can use their education and their talents in a multitude of ways to address social issues if they listen to those with expertise and experience in that particular area.”

The students worked directly with staff members at Willis Dady. Sophomore Tendall Weigand said her favorite part was touring the shelter and developing research that the staff can incorporate directly into their programs to help the community. 

“I feel that I am now both a more informed and more compassionate citizen in the community and have the academic understanding to better sympathize with an individual’s personal life story and the ‘shoes they had to walk in’ to get where they are today,” Weigand said.

SYS courses also help students build professional skills such as time management, communication, and oral presentation skills. In fact, students presented their findings at the end of the block to the Willis Dady staff.

“They understood that their work could have a direct impact on folks who are living without homes and they felt that pressure, in a good way, to create strong projects,” Barnes-Brus said. “The SYS foundation is an early step in helping students build a variety of skills for their future careers.”

Art and Community 

Two students painting on a large mural of a firefighter
Ashley Mink (left) and Molly Hallett (right) add the finishing touches to the class mural project.

Associate Professor of Art Susannah Biondo-Gemmell created her SYS course, Art and Community, to inspire students to use art to create change. 

“It’s exciting because so often art tends to be thought of as self-serving or as an individual process,” Biondo-Gemmell said.

“We shifted gears and talked about how we take the individual out of the art-making process and make it less about our own ideas and make it more about how we can serve others.”

Students took on three different projects during the 3½ weeks of this Block 1 SYS course. First, they worked with a local artist, Mark Benesh, to create a mural for Uptown Mount Vernon. The entire class, many of which are non-art majors, played a part in painting the mural. 

“Professional muralist (Mark Benesh) designed it in collaboration with Susannah. It was projected onto boards, and we traced it and painted by numbers essentially,” said Evan Begner, a sophomore economics and business major from Colorado.

Now people enjoying a stroll Uptown can see the work just off of First Avenue near Mount Vernon Hair Co. and Friends. The mural depicts a firefighter and was designed to engage the community and provide a sense of history through the imagery.

Art and Community classmates work on the mural
Art and Community classmates work on their mural.

“The mural is site-specific–integrating the history of the space. This block actually burned down in 1975 and that fire was fought by the Mount Vernon Fire Department.” Biondo-Gemmell said. “We used that historical fire and how it changed the community as a springboard for the design component. That’s what people will see in that mural–the story of that fire and the patch that would have been worn by the department at that point. It’s composed of images from that time period.”

For the second project of the class, students used pottery-making to bring awareness to food insecurity issues in their local community. 

Evan Begner works on a piece for Empty Bowls
Evan Begner works on a piece for Empty Bowls.

“Empty Bowls is a national organization that uses the creation of ceramic bowls to bring awareness to hunger issues,” Biondo-Gemmell said. “The students learned different handbuilding and throwing processes to produce the bowls.”

Sophomore Audrey Pagel, a studio art and psychology double major from Minnesota, said after a year of COVID it has been fun to get out in the community and get involved.

“I love pottery, so it has been really fun to use my own skills and things that I love doing to help impact the community and bring those skills to different organizations that are helping the community that I live in now,” Pagel said.

The students received donations for those bowls at the Lincoln Highway Arts Festival on Sept. 18, and they gave all of the proceeds to the food pantry of the Southeast Linn Community Center in Lisbon

The third and final project allowed students to think big and design their own community-engaged artwork. They used digital and analog processes along with a written proposal to develop and communicate their design ideas. All the students in the class were then asked to participate in a public presentation of the projects at the SYS showcase on the last day of the block.

The class was excited to not only spend their time supporting the community but through this class, the community also supported them. The class received a grant from the Mount Vernon Area Arts Council. Plus, Dale Merrill and Liberty Iron Works created the mural frame and installed the mural.

At the end of the 18 days of these SYS classes, students have learned new skills and have discovered new ways to solve problems that extend far beyond themselves and beyond the Hilltop.