Freedom and Guidance Allow Grad Students to Take the Lead: Graduate Education and Research in Human Ecology Sharpen Students' Skills for Success on the Cutting Edges of Their Fields

By Ulrich, Clare | Human Ecology, May 2006 | Go to article overview

Freedom and Guidance Allow Grad Students to Take the Lead: Graduate Education and Research in Human Ecology Sharpen Students' Skills for Success on the Cutting Edges of Their Fields


Ulrich, Clare, Human Ecology


With 94 major fields of study, 16 minor fields, and 15 different degree programs, graduate study at Cornell isn't short on options. In the College of Human Ecology, in particular, where research is devoted to improving human life, faculty-student camaraderie is the norm, and graduate students are given just the right balance of guidance and freedom to become innovative thinkers and leaders in whatever profession they choose.

Research provides the training ground for our students," says Kay Obendorf, associate dean for research and professor of textiles and apparel. "Cornell faculty use their research to train new researchers. Because graduate education prepares tomorrow's leaders, we want that research to be grounded in theory and groundbreaking in its field."

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Independent thinking The Graduate School at Cornell does not impose any requirements for credits or courses. Students have the freedom to shape a course of study that cuts across disciplines while working within an academic framework that they develop with a committee of faculty advisers they choose. The College of Human Ecology has five distinct but interrelated departments from which to select an area of study, and students are typically encouraged to include committee members from outside the college.

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"Leadership," explains Sheila Danko, associate professor of design and environmental analysis and a J. Thomas Clark Professor of Entrepreneurship, "is about embracing new perspectives, seeing problems through other people's eyes." Danko herself has a diversified background, with training in graphic design from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, a B.S. in architecture from the University of Michigan, and a master's in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design. "One of the things we endeavor to teach our graduate students is to dig deeply into a question and go beyond the surface issues they're familiar with. When you start to embrace a frame of reference that is foreign to you, it pushes you into a zone of discomfort that is really important for creative problem solving, and ultimately, leadership. Exploring how diverse points of view interact builds new perspectives, which are critical to leading research."

Danko walks her talk. In 1997, she developed an introductory course called Making a Difference by Design. "Rather than merely teaching design concepts, I wanted to show that design can be a tool for change for biologists, lawyers, community activists, or business CEOs," she explains. "I wanted to inspire students by showing them how leaders use design to make social changes, take risks, view the world imaginatively, and solve problems creatively."

Matthew McIntyre, a 2003 graduate of the College of Human Ecology in interior design, became interested in Danko's research after taking her course as an undergraduate. Studying with Danko was a chief reason he decided to continue his graduate studies at Cornell.

"At the same time," McIntyre explains, "all these controversies were erupting about businesses that were just doing horrible things in the world. Looking at how much businesses focus on their bottom line got me really interested in the things companies were doing beyond their bottom line."

The subject of his research is Ithaca Fine Chocolates, the first U.S. chocolate company to be Fair Trade Certified. The company's supplier conducts business with small-scale cocoa farmers and enables them to remain self-sufficient by guaranteeing equitable prices. It also improves conditions in farmers' communities by prohibiting forced child labor, promoting sustainable farming techniques that safeguard the environment, and helping to establish and support farmer-owned cooperatives. Farmers and their families are able to afford health care and education as a result of the business arrangement.

As a graduate student now, McIntyre is studying how a socially responsible company like Ithaca Fine Chocolates expresses its values to both internal (employees, artists, investors) and external (customers, suppliers, community) stakeholders, and how those values become the company's marketing strategy. …

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