The State University of New York in Cobleskill is looking to become a “lifeline and partner” to the area’s rural community with the establishment of a new Institute for Rural Vitality.
Serving as a clearinghouse for existing programs and partnerships, and a force for establishing new ones, the institute aims to be a home for economic development efforts in Schoharie County while also providing improved education and research opportunities for students and professors.
When SUNY Cobleskill President Marion Terenzio started her tenure more than a year ago, she said she was focused on leveraging the school’s resources and expertise to help encourage economic development efforts throughout the county. But the need for the school to play that role was even greater than she expected.
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“It’s even more critical than I realized,” Terenzio said of the school’s role in fostering economic development in the region. “I didn’t know how important … in terms of connecting what the college does with the rest of the environment.”
The institute is composed of five centers: the Center for Farm and Food Entrepreneurship; the Center for Community Advancement; the Center for Business Development; the Center for Art and Culture; and the Center for Rural Legal and Policy Services.
The centers will be headed by faculty “champions,” who will lead efforts to expand and develop programming around the specific themes. The faculty leaders will also serve as point persons when new ideas or opportunities come to the school. Those ideas might be formal requests from a business or organization, or a suggestion passed along at a party.
“The centers will be the bridge between the work of the faculty and students, and what we want the students to gain and to invite the community to join in with us,” Terenzio said. “Every center is as important as every other one to make this happen.”
The institute is effectively an organizational structure to strengthen the school’s partnership with the Cobleskill and Schoharie County communities. But it is also tasked with finding ways to incorporate every community partnership into class curriculum and student opportunities for internships, work-study or hands-on learning experiences.
Mariesa Muscatiello, a SUNY Cobleskill student, interns for Avery Teach and Co. in Schenectady, an estate planning firm. (Marc Schultz)
Assistant Professor Jason Evans, who will lead the institute as its director, pointed to the schools existing small business incubator as an example of how the institute will work. The school provides advice and guidance to small businesses and in turn, the small businesses serve as in-class case studies and provide students internship opportunities.
“All of those processes can become experiential learning opportunities for students,” Evans said of community partnerships.
In the near term, Evans will work on building a team of leaders across the institute’s different centers, and developing and communicating a process for identifying and funneling potential opportunities to the right person. He said it will function like a dispatch center for new partnerships.
The institute will also serve as a home for existing programs and partnerships, and provide a new framework for strengthening those programs, Evans said. The institute can also be viewed as recognition that the college needs the community as much as the other way around.
“The college is dependent on the community as much as the community is dependent on the college,” said Barry Gell, the college’s director of research and sponsored programs. “We need a strong community to attract students. We need a strong, vibrant town. And the town needs us.”
The institute will also house a new partnership with Albany Law School, which is using federal grant money to provide legal services to rural counties. The Government Law Center at Albany Law recently established its Rural Law Initiative, which seeks to provide rural legal services to areas in need, as well as study the legal challenges facing rural communities.
“It’s very difficult to access legal services in many rural communities,” said Andrew Ayers, director of the government law center. “You can drive a long time without finding a lawyer.”
A recent law school graduate will be positioned at SUNY–Cobleskill, available to provide free consults to local businesses, farmers and others looking for legal help. Those consults will center on basic business and other issues, such as forming a business, employment issues, estate planning and other common legal problems that rural communities face.
If the client’s needs are too involved for the legal fellow, the center is working to develop a list of other lawyers who could help.
“We need to rely on partners in the community to help us identify issues to help collaborate with us,” Ayers said.