Community Engagement Awards honor exceptional people, projects 
By Ashlee McGandy
Diane Cohen, chief executive officer of Finger Lakes ReUse, gives the keynote address at the second annual Community Engagement Awards.
Diane Cohen, chief executive officer of Finger Lakes ReUse, gives the keynote address at the second annual Community Engagement Awards.

Collaboration was the theme of the evening at the second annual Community Engagement Awards, held April 16 in the Statler Hotel Ballroom. Hosted by the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, the event celebrated excellence in local and global university-community partnerships.

“Nearly 80% of this year’s graduating seniors have participated in community-engaged learning. This impressive reach takes the dedication of thousands of faculty, staff, Cornell senior leaders, community partners and fellow students,” said Basil Safi, executive director of the Einhorn Center. “It’s an honor to take the time to celebrate the large family that make up community-engaged learning at Cornell.”

Keynote speaker Diane Cohen, chief executive officer at Finger Lakes ReUse, shared the rich and varied partnerships with Cornell that have helped advance the organization’s mission. These span more than 60 research projects, including participation in the Circularity, Reuse and Zero Waste Development (CR0WD) partner network; working with A Seat at the Table, Cornell’s business ethics student organization; hiring Cornell students through the Community Work-Study Program; and hosting student organizations for service days.

“Community engagement and collaboration have been present and essential to this work, offering space for transformation and self-empowerment for people who can get involved,” Cohen said. “Cornell students and faculty have propelled and accelerated our efforts along the way.”

Following the keynote, 15 faculty and five students received awards for their community-engaged learning programs and projects.

Katherine McComas, vice provost for engagement and land-grant affairs, first recognized the recipients of the Community-Engaged Practice & Innovation Awards. The awards are given to one faculty member from each Cornell college and school to honor community-engaged learning, leadership or research activities that create learning opportunities for students. This year’s recipients are working on projects with community partners from Ithaca to Ecuador, including K-12 schools, health care worker unions, policymakers and utility companies.

J. Nathan Matias, assistant professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, received the George D. Levy Engaged Teaching and Research Award for research on the role of artificial intelligence in hiring processes. Partnering with two leading research and consumer organizations, Consumer Reports and the Data & Society Research Institute, students in Matias’ COMM 2450 Communication and Technology class will study the implementation of New York City Local Law 144, the world’s first AI transparency law. Eve De Rosa, dean of faculty and the Mibs Martin Follett Professor in Human Ecology, presented the award.

Rebecca Morgenstern Brenner, senior lecturer in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy, received the Kaplan Family Distinguished Faculty Fellowship, in recognition of her work with Ithaca’s Southside Community Center to mitigate homeowner displacement resulting from newly implemented FEMA flood insurance maps. Brenner initiated the community partnership after learning that much of the Southside neighborhood would be recategorized in FEMA’s first flood map updates for Ithaca in 40 years. Doug Kaplan ’88 presented the award to Brenner, who was joined at the podium by her partners from Southside Community Center.

Following the faculty awards, Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, introduced the student awards, emphasizing the long-term impact that community-engaged learning has on students and communities.

“The commitment to community engagement you have shown here at Cornell sets you on the path of living a lifetime of doing good,” Lombardi said. “The experiences you will have in pursuit of that commitment and the relationships you will develop will enrich your life and enrich the communities in which you live through your efforts.”

Ivonne Kienast, doctoral student, received the first student recognition of the evening, the Maribel Garcia Community Spirit Award, for her commitment to wildlife conservation and education in Africa. Kienast’s current work is as project manager and head researcher of the Dzanga Forest Elephant Project, a collaboration between the Elephant Listening Project of Cornell’s K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics and the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Areas management, with support from anti-poaching organization Chengeta Wildlife.

Ariela Asllani ’26, David Ni ’24 and Melody Welles ’27 were the three recipients of this year’s Robinson-Appel Humanitarian Awards. Asllani founded Refugee Scholars in Ithaca, which aims to help refugee high school students bridge the opportunity gap to higher education. For his No More Crying project, Ni is working with the History Center in Tompkins County to explore the history of Ithaca as a place of immigration and beacon of hope for those seeking to better their lives. Motivated by her experience in the child welfare system, Welles founded the Ithaca Adoptive and Foster Youth Support Group to provide a safe environment for foster and adoptive children to play and form lasting connections with each other. Neil Giacobbi ’96, assistant dean for external affairs, Cornell Tech, who received the Robinson-Appel award when he was a student, presented the awards.

The final student to be honored was Sarah McMorrow ’24, the recipient of the Class of 1964 John F. Kennedy Memorial Award. McMorrow received the award for her dedication to public service and her future plans to be a physician and medical researcher. Throughout her years at Cornell, McMorrow has logged hundreds of hours as an emergency medical technician and firefighter with the Varna Volunteer Fire Company, a commitment to serving others that she plans to continue throughout her career.

This story was also published in the Cornell Chronicle.