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Resourceful professors take students ‘Beyond Colgate’

By Barbara Brooks on November 28, 2011
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Jessica Graybill, assistant professor of geography, needed to look no farther than Utica, N.Y., for students in her Urban Transformations seminar to experience the cultural, spatial, and environmental changes brought about by refugee migration. The city’s leaders openly welcome international newcomers — most recently from Bosnia, Belarus, and Vietnam — as a strategy for economic sustainability.

“The proximity of Utica and the richness of its immigrant history make it an ideal location for our work,” said Graybill, whose course spans the full spectrum of the research process, from project conceptualization through individual and team research components, and culminating in a final paper written as a journal article.

But without a budget to visit, the 30-mile distance would be so close, yet so far.

So Graybill applied to the Beyond Colgate program for $975 — a reasonable amount that would cover a series of five field trips and research support for her nine students.

The decade-old program supports some 35 to 40 trips each year, all organized by faculty members who are as frugal as they are creative. Each trip must meet a common objective: allow students to apply what they are learning in the classroom, while exploring the region.

Elizabeth Fischer ’12 was part of the three-member team studying Beyond Greenspaces: Indicators of Sustainability and Wellbeing in Utica, N.Y.

“We saw firsthand the decay and deterioration such as brown fields and vacant buildings that plague many parts of Utica,” she said, “but we were also able to speak with Planning Commissioner Brian Thomas about his sentiments on the sustainability of the city. He clarified and elaborated on information we had collected and answered the questions we had for him.”

Mark Stern, visiting assistant professor of educational studies, also brought students on a trip “to speak to people in the thick of it all,” as he called it.

With his $2,500 budget, he brought the 25 students in his Politics and Education class to New York City for an 18-hour, round-trip marathon. He planned bus transportation, meals, and meetings with professional friends and colleagues at the Promise Academy charter school and the American Federation of Teachers.

The group also met with education reporter Dana Goldstein, whose stories on educational politics appear in The Daily Beast, The Nation, and elsewhere.

“I’ve been telling my students that if you really want to understand education policy, you need to understand everything other than education policy first — you need context, and you need a political reading of that context,” said Stern. “The value of the trip was to interact with people (other than myself and our authors) in order to try to make more sense of the increasingly messy and complicated landscape of education policy; to get through all the mire and muck and rhetoric surrounding education policy today and to just talk. We don’t do that enough.”

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