Community at Cornell


Community at Cornell is a required program for new Cornellians to engage with fellow incoming students and practice skills for meaningful and collaborative communication. This program is an opportunity to explore how learning from your own and others’ lived experiences can help you maximize what you gain from your time in college and prepare you for your future in an increasingly interconnected world. Through reading, written reflection, and experiential activities, you will have an opportunity to learn and practice intentional communication strategies and reflect on how you might use them in your time at Cornell.

This program has two parts:

Part 1: A short reading, followed by a brief reflection assignment

Part 2: A 2-hour interactive and peer-led, virtual session

(Almost all of) the 64 facilitators who led our August 2019 Create Community Across Difference Sessions (plus Finn the dog). We had 32 undergraduate students, 19 recent IDP alum, 9 graduate students, and 4 staff facilitate 185 sessions in 4 days!


The experience of being a Cornellian extends far beyond what is learned in lectures. As incoming students start this new chapter of learning and growth, their identities and personal experiences shape how they interact with others and form new relationships on campus. The ability to communicate and collaborate across difference, as well as to learn from someone else’s lived experiences will enable them to maximize what they gain from their time here. It will also allow them to actively contribute to making Cornell a more open and supportive community and better prepare them for their future in an increasingly interconnected world.

Our goal is for participants to feel challenged in a positive way by new perspectives. We hope to spark the desire and the confidence in participants so that they are compelled to learn more about and reflect upon their own identities and experiences, as well as the identities and experiences of others.

Our main goals are to use intentional communication strategies to:

  • Explore opportunities and challenges associated with your transition to Cornell
  • Reflect on what can be learned from the diversity that exists on campus and in your communities
  • Connect with fellow incoming students


In September 2017, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack established the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate. The task force, comprising faculty, staff, and students from the Ithaca campus, and charged with recommending specific actions to foster a more diverse, inclusive, and respectful campus environment. They aimed to identify the barriers hindering Cornell from becoming a fully welcoming and inclusive community and to propose strategies to promote greater respect, understanding, and inclusivity (Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, 2017).

During the extensive outreach conducted by the Campus Experience sub-committee, the task force repeatedly received feedback that highlighted the Intergroup Dialogue Project (IDP) as an excellent model for diversity education on campus. As a result, a key recommendation emerged from the task force’s work, advocating for mandatory introductory intergroup dialogue sessions for all incoming students. This recommendation gained the endorsement of President Pollack, who committed funding for the initiative. In August 2018, IDP launched the Community at Cornell program for all incoming undergraduate students.

As part of the Community at Cornell program, incoming students engaged in a brief reading and written reflection on the concept of dialogue and its potential application during their time at Cornell. These sessions were integrated into the Orientation program, where each student attended one of the 169 sessions held over five days. To support this substantial undertaking, IDP enlisted the assistance of 22 recent alumni facilitators from various regions in the country, in addition to their undergraduate, graduate, and staff facilitators.

The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020 presented new challenges. With in-person sessions during Orientation no longer viable, IDP pivoted and adapted the Community at Cornell program into a virtual format. This shift enabled students to complete the program before arriving on campus, providing them with an introduction to Cornell’s values before they arrive in Ithaca.

Assessment results indicated that offering the sessions virtually before students arrive on campus enabled us to best meet incoming students’ needs. One thing heard repeatedly from focus group participants who had completed the session during orientation was that orientation is so packed with activities and information that it was hard to fully engage in our session and retain any skills or concepts that could be applied later. By offering Community at Cornell before students arrive on campus, they have an opportunity to focus more clearly on the session and learn skills and concepts they can start applying as soon as they set foot on campus. This last point is worth emphasizing given the outsized impact that early interactions can have on students’ eventual friend groups here; knowing about tools like LARA and/or thinking about social identities at Cornell before arriving in Ithaca can help students feel more open, curious, and empathetic when meeting new people here. 

Assessment indicates that the impact of the program in fall 2021 (offered virtually, before students came to campus) was at least as great – and in some ways, greater than – the impact of prior years. For example, participants’ agreement with the statement “The skills I practiced in this session will help me have more meaningful interactions with people whose social identities differ from my own” was pretty steady across fall 2019, spring 2021, and fall 2021 (89%, 84%, 88%, respectively). There was even more agreement with other statements: “After this session I see my own social identities in a more complex, nuanced way” (FA19: 52%, SP21: 55%, FA21: 66%), and “This session made me feel more connected to other people at Cornell” (FA19: 67%, SP21: 63%, FA21: 81%). By attending a Community at Cornell session virtually and before orientation, we have the opportunity to allay students’ concerns about being able to connect with other Cornell students, to help them feel capable of forming those meaningful connections with a wide range of people, and to cultivate excitement about forming a deeper understanding of themselves and others during their time as students here. 

The Community at Cornell program continues to play a pivotal role in acquainting new students with the university’s commitment to diversity, dialogue, and inclusivity. The ongoing success of this initiative reinforces Cornell’s commitment to its founding principle of “…any person … any study.”

Assessment Highlights

After offering the program for the last four years, and conducting thorough assessment for the last three, we are excited to see the profound impact on students and the Cornell community. Students express seeing others in a more complex way, feeling more prepared to form meaningful connections across difference, and feeling more connected to others at Cornell.

Survey responses from each cohort of CAC participants indicate that this program provides students with an opportunity to reflect on their own and others’ social identities during their transition to Cornell. A majority of participants report that they leave the session seeing others in a more complex, nuanced way and feeling more interested in understanding their own social identities. 
“[I learned] that everyone around me is also struggling with reconciling their identity. I originally thought I was alone in thinking that I wouldn’t fit in given my “unique” identity, but speaking one-on-one with others who are feeling the same way made me realize that I’m not alone, and that I can be comfortable reaching out to everyone around me as they too are also having difficulty understanding their identities.” – Fall 2021 CAC participant 
When asked, a majority of CAC participants indicated that the skills they practiced during the session would help them form more meaningful connections across difference, and that they are more interested in forming these connections.
“I learned that connecting and communicating through shared values can help bridge differences and that acknowledging and affirming someone else’s words really adds value and meaning to a conversation.” – Spring 2021 CAC participant
For many, the session itself offers an opportunity for connection; overall, a majority of participants say that their experience in CAC made them feel more connected to others at Cornell. This can be especially profound during this time of transition.
“I realized that a lot of people around me have similar experiences, worries, and insecurities to me and that I can relate to them in more ways than I thought I could.” – Fall 2019 CAC participant
This semester, we conducted focus groups and interviews with students from all class years to better understand the long-term impacts of this program. We are still analyzing the data collected from these and will share additional findings in the future.

The abbreviated Intergroup Dialogue session during freshman orientation was one of the most amazing experiences. Previously, I was never given the opportunity to sit down with someone I had never met before and discuss my personal identity without judgment. I established ever-lasting friendships with other freshmen in my discussion. I learned an astonishing amount about myself, my leaders, and others. I would love to have the opportunity to participate in weekly discussions similar to what I experienced my first week at Cornell.

I will definitely be able to use the skills i learned from the workshop in my day-to-day life. Many of the skills I learned about would help me to better connect to those around me.

I learned how to listen and be present to show respect in a conversation, especially me who is really shy about meeting people who are new and forging connections that are new.

I learned the importance of being authentic in your own opinions rather than avoiding conflict and always simply agreeing. Dialogue can create new understandings only by first acknowledging the differences.

I learned about the tool LARA and how to communicate effectively with people, especially those from different backgrounds and who have different perspectives from me.

It will be very useful in interpersonal communication, especially with people of significantly different backgrounds and with different perspectives.