Skip to main content
Fall 2012
Print Bookmark and Share

End Note

My Cornell Story

By Svante Myrick
CALS ’09

Svante Myrick

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, I realize the extent to which my journey has been influenced by CALS and by its commitment to uphold the land grant mission. I entered Cornell in 2005 as a communication major, with a tentative plan to study journalism and pursue a career in broadcasting. Today, at age 25, I am mayor of the City of Ithaca. Although I would have never guessed this to be the direction my life would take, I am truly grateful that it is, and I credit CALS for instilling the public service mindedness that guided me to where I am today.

I was raised in Earlville, a small town in Upstate New York with a population of 800 people. As a senior in high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to study in college, let alone what I wanted to pursue in terms of a career. One aspect of Cornell that I loved and that appealed to me as a wavering college applicant, therefore, was the scope of its choices. I was confident that, at some point in my four years there, I would discover the path that I was meant to be on.

I was extremely overwhelmed when I first entered Cornell. I struggled to find a sense of purpose and belonging, and I quickly started to withdraw myself. Then one day in October I joined a friend—albeit reluctantly—at an information session for the Raising Education Awareness Challenge (REACH) program. A student-run program within the Cornell Public Service Center, REACH works toward closing the achievement gap by pairing student tutors and mentors with local, underserved youths. I immediately felt at home at REACH, and for the first time in my life I realized that I was capable of making a tremendous difference in the lives of others.

My newfound passion for community engagement and public service propelled me into a variety of other activities, completely turning my Cornell experience around. In addition to remaining active in REACH, where I tutored for four years and was a board member for three, I wrote for The Cornell Daily Sun, worked as an apprenticeship coordinator with the Learning Web, and at age 20 successfully ran for a seat on the City of Ithaca’s Common Council, becoming one of the youngest elected black officials in U.S. history.

It wasn’t simply by coincidence that I became so inspired by and committed to public service; it was due in large part to my being a member of the CALS community. In keeping with its tradition as a land-grant college, one of the core values at CALS is knowledge with a public purpose. After I was elected to Common Council, balancing those responsibilities with class attendance was challenging. While admittedly some professors didn’t comment, those who did were both understanding and supportive. They believed that serving the community was just as important as my classroom education.

This isn’t to say, however, that coursework was not extremely influential as well. For one, I probably wouldn’t have been elected as mayor had I not taken Katherine McComas’ course Planning Communication Campaigns. Running as a 24-year-old, I knew that it would be a challenge to garner local support and convince voters that I was a legitimate and deserving candidate. However, Professor McComas taught me how to properly target my audience and how to effectively construct and deliver my message.

Another course I took, which continues to prove invaluable, was Group Communication and Decision Making, taught by Poppy McLeod. It gave me the tools necessary to be able to effectively participate in public meetings and now, as chair of Common Council, to run them. So much of what I do as mayor happens in small group settings, and because of Professor McLeod I have a greater understanding not only of how the process works but also how to make the process work better.

I am a true believer in the importance of learning by doing, and I am very grateful for the fact that most of the courses I took in CALS were hands-on and geared toward real-world issues. We didn’t just learn about communication, we developed actual communication plans; we didn’t just study group decision making, we got into groups and made decision, after decision, after decision; we didn’t just learn about service, we served. Were it not for CALS being a land grant college with such a deep belief in and dedication to public service, I honestly don’t know if I would be serving as the mayor of Ithaca today.