A college’s window onto civic partnerships

Does Sarah Lawrence College matter to its surrounding communities? The college and its president, Cristle Collins Judd, want to ensure the answer remains “yes.”

When Sarah Lawrence College successfully applied for a $1.2 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant two years ago — recalls Cristle Collins Judd, the college’s president — “the foundation asked us, If Sarah Lawrence went away today, what would your neighbors say?” 

Not, What gossip might they reveal? But rather, Would it matter to Yonkers (the college’s hometown), Bronxville (its postal address) and neighboring Mount Vernon that the 95-year-old college — founded by real estate mogul William Van Duzer Lawrence and famed for its intimate classes; faculty-student conferences; and arts, human genetics and early childhood programs — passed this way at all?

For the college and for Judd — who became president in 2017 after serving as the Mellon Foundation’s senior program officer for higher education and scholarship in the humanities — the answer can only be “yes” as civic connection, engagement and reciprocity are key.

There’s a reason, she says, that the floor-to-ceiling windows of the lucent Barbara Walters Campus Center (named for the legendary host of “Today” and “The View,” a Sarah Lawrence alumna) face Kimball Avenue, which connects downtown Bronxville with Yonkers’ Cross County Center. Those windows crystallize the college’s longstanding commitment to reaching out to its larger community and letting it in.

Using the five-year Mellon grant — the largest programmatic one in the college’s history — Sarah Lawrence has created positions for three public humanities fellows and one digital media fellow, who teach at the college and join the students in partnering with local organizations. So public humanities fellow Kishauna Soljour, Ph.D. — who leads the African American Oral History Project with Yonkers Public Library — taught a class on Yonkers history to SLC students, who in turn did podcasts on aspects of that history, including one on the library’s bookmobiles. This year, Soljour has curated “Rooted: A Community Archive,” at the college’s Esther Raushenbush Library through Dec. 17. A multimedia show featuring the works of four artists, three of whom are from Yonkers, “Rooted” is the story of identity, history and community in Yonkers and New York state. The digital media fellow, Yeong Ran Kim, Ph.D., teaches a class at Sarah Lawrence in how to teach digital media. Its students in turn pass on their knowledge in a workshop for 12 and 13 year olds from Yonkers, Bronxville and Mount Vernon, says Mara Gross, director of the college’s Anita L. Stafford Office of Community Partnerships and Service Learning.

Another public humanities fellow, still to be determined, will be working with the multidisciplinary Hudson River Museum in Yonkers (Page 88), while public humanities fellow Emily Bloom engages with Wartburg, the senior living complex in Mount Vernon distinguished by its artistic offerings for residents and the surrounding community.

But the Mellon Foundation grant is just one way in which Sarah Lawrence connects with Yonkers. The college’s Community Leadership Intern Program (CLIP) puts students to work in Yonkers agencies across disciplines — the arts, environment, social services — for more than 10 weeks in summer. Each student puts in 30 hours a week, earning minimum wage (which will be $15 an hour, beginning Jan. 1) in what may be an entrée to a career. One student working with Soljour at Yonkers Public Library, says Gross, is going on to apply for an advanced degree in library science.

Sarah Lawrence also operates the Center for the Urban River at Beczak (CURB) in Yonkers, which provides thousands of kindergartners through 12th graders with environmental education, serves as a research hub and monitors issues related to the Hudson River like waste refuse. Recently, Jason Muller, CURB’s outreach coordinator, SLC sophomore Gabriella Marchesani and Yonkers Middle High School seniors Michael Castro and Sukaina Rashid discovered a 33-millimeter lyle goby (Evorthodus lyricus), which is indeed a fish out of water for this region. It is now officially the 236th species to inhabit the Hudson.

Such moments of discovery aren’t only for the young. The college offers lifelong learning programs for professionals and other adults, Judd says, including those in The Writing Institute, Child Development Institute and Filmmakers Collective. She adds that Sarah Lawrence partners with Westchester Community College (Page 86) — enabling WCC students who have graduated with an Associate of Science (A.S.) degree in childhood education or an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree in early childhood to matriculate as juniors at SLC and earn their Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in liberal arts and sciences in two years or their bachelor’s and Master of Arts (M.A.) degrees in the art of teaching in three years.

With the nonprofit Hearts and Homes for Refugees, Gross says, Sarah Lawrence helps refugees settle into Yonkers and beyond in part by doing what it does best, teaching.

Such engagement ensures that the college’s windows shine on an increasingly wider world.

For more, visit sarahlawrence.edu.

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