RIT as a Powerhouse for Good
by Dan Grinthal | published Nov. 9th, 2017
RIT recently jumped 10 places to claim a spot within the top 100 nationally-ranked universities for excellence overall. Our research and PhD programs are expanding, our facilities and campus culture are always evolving, and anyone who has participated in the daily struggle to find a parking spot on academic side knows that our student body is growing rapidly.
Now, in light of RIT's landmark ascent into the national spotlight punctuated by the start of a new period under the leadership of President David Munson, it's a good time to take a look at what it's all for. Where does RIT stand when it comes civic engagement?
President Munson is already excited about the university's vision heading forward. Speaking to the Rochester community as a whole at a recent technical conference, Munson had this to say about the many disciplines represented there by RIT students — “They all have one common theme — making lives better! Isn't this what it's all about?”
That's a heartwarming and encouraging perspective coming from the university's highest-ranking administrator. However, the idea of RIT training graduates who are passionate about using their skills for social good is not an official part of RIT's guiding vision — yet.
Kit Mayberry, a senior member of university leadership serving as the vice president for Strategic Planning and Special Initiatives, reflected on the convergence of RIT's historical legacy with the new directions on the horizon.
“We have a lot of trustees for whom the notion of getting a remunerative job right off the bat is extremely important. That really is our brand," she explained. "I think that the new administration would like to see that brand broaden to say that everybody knows RIT is state of the art in terms of getting jobs for its graduates — but we want to do good in the world.”
Traditionally a career-oriented school, RIT has established itself as a multidisciplinary powerhouse fully capable of delivering on its promise of winning good jobs for its graduates. However, the RIT community is beginning to push for something more — from the ground up.
Students of every grade level are supporting, participating in and leading service-oriented efforts all over campus in order to make their time at RIT be about something bigger than themselves. The Habitat for Humanity club, Greek life donation drives and RIT Foodshare are just a few examples of this on campus.
RIT Foodshare is a relatively new program that collects, stores and distributes donated food items to RIT students who may be struggling with the high cost of attendance. The center is mostly run by students and staffed by resident advisers, but relies on crucial help from the administration.
“Without the support of administration, this would be nearly impossible. The Center for Residence life is the main fighting force to provide this facility and this staff, but we also depend on other factors, like FMS, Housing — they are always here to help us,” said Rohan Patel, a first year Human Computer Interaction graduate student and graduate coordinator of Foodshare.
Foodshare has more than doubled the size of its operation since its opening in 2015. It's a great example of a successful partnership between students and staff aimed at building up the RIT community. As more students have swelled the ranks of the grassroots movement aimed at making the community around RIT a better place, many like-minded staff have eagerly jumped aboard.
IdeaLab, a multidisciplinary weekend-long design blitz fielded by the Simone Center and aimed at solving access technology problems for local charitable organizations, is another RIT program focused on social good. Along with programs like Eureka in CIAS and Engineers for a Sustainable World in KGCOE, it's one of a growing number of university initiatives that give students the opportunity to practice their skills on projects addressing real needs in Rochester and beyond.
Dan Harel, the faculty coordinator of the Simone Center's IdeaLab program, believes RIT students — working with university leadership — have substantial potential to make a positive impact not only on the Rochester community but also the world at large.
“RIT has all the tools and the expertise and the brains to make that happen. This would be a great contribution by an educational institute to our society.”
“RIT has all the tools and the expertise and the brains to make that happen. This would be a great contribution by an educational institute to our society,” Harel said.
Room for Improvement
However, most of these initiatives occur outside of class and are run by students or enthusiastic professors and other faculty members. There is a lot of room for improvement in the social responsibility aspect of RIT's everyday academic programming.
“As we train you, why not train you on something which is really important? Our projects need to be tailored to the problems and needs of our people and the problems and needs of the world. That needs to be in the vision of the organization so that everybody breathes and speaks that,” Harel commented.
That sort of passion for the social good isn't currently evident in official RIT vision statements, but RIT does have a new office that is beginning to bridge the gap between students enthused to do good for society and the university resources they need. The Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement (CLCE) is tucked away in the lower level of the Campus Center, its physical location perhaps indicative of the current status of its mission relative to other university priorities.
Kerry Foxx, director of the CLCE, commented from his unique viewpoint on the status of the social responsibility movement at RIT.
“We know that there is a growing population of students who have these interests and passions that are bigger than themselves as individuals."
“We know that there is a growing population of students who have these interests and passions that are bigger than themselves as individuals," Foxx said. "They're in SEAL [Student Environmental Action League], they're in Habitat [for Humanity] building homes every weekend, they're building prosthetic limbs for children. But that's a story that we don't tell about ourselves very often, and if we do we don't necessarily tell it well."
Foxx's job, and that of his enthusiastic team at the CLCE office, is to begin telling that story better. The office has put out programming like Into the Roc, Service Week, Leadership Now and several scholarships — all designed to attract students who are interested in engaging with the community.
The idea is that as the university begins to discover who is doing what in terms of social service at RIT, it can begin to put together a powerful network.
“These 20-something student organizations are doing this wonderful work but they don't necessarily talk to each other. Some phenomenal work is happening out of these particular colleges, but they don't talk to each other. It's the challenge of being a large university, but over time those walls are beginning to come down,” Foxx commented.
Foxx and many others would appreciate an official stance around social responsibility in RIT's guiding principles, one that positions RIT as a university which trains not only top-notch marketplace performers, but also bold students with a passion for using their hard-earned skills for the benefit of the world at large.
RIT has already established itself as a leader in experiential learning with our highly developed co-op program, and the school's graduates are sought after by many top-tier companies. However, there are a number of schools in RIT's prestigious national community which are taking thorough job training a step further. By putting a premium on the idea of experiential learning in the context of community, schools like MIT and Cornell are producing graduates who have been trained to make a difference at some of the highest levels of professional competence.
Perhaps now is the time, as RIT rises to national prominence, to take a look at how we too can turn a school that is traditionally an economic workhorse into a powerhouse for good — thereby ensuring that as RIT's research and housing budgets grow, so will its heart.