This year, the Goucher community must sadly say farewell to our Associate Provost of Undergraduate Studies, Dr. La Jerne Cornish, as she moves onward to her new position as Provost and Senior Vice President of Educational Affairs at Ithaca College. Dr. Cornish first came to Goucher as an undergraduate in 1979, and will leave behind a legacy of strength, integrity, and quality education.
The Quindecim spoke with Dr. La Jerne Cornish about her time here at Goucher College, what she will miss most about the community, and how she has seen the institution change and grow. The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What was the most rewarding aspect of working in the Goucher community?
Dr. Cornish: I adore the students. I love my colleagues. I have wonderful relationships with faculty and staff, but the highlight of my day, every day, is my relationships with the students.
Q: Do you have a favorite student story that’s particularly meaningful to you?
Dr. Cornish: Early on, there was a student who was a history major with a concentration in secondary education, and he was constantly getting in trouble for making poor decisions. I pulled him into my office one day, and he was about six feet tall, much taller than I. I looked at him and I said to him, “You are so much better than this, and it is time for you to start making informed decisions, and it’s time for you to start handling your business. Because if you don’t, things are not going to turn out the way you’d like them to turn out.” Fast forward 20 years and this young man is a history teacher par excellence. In a few years, he reached out and got in touch with me as he was coming through Baltimore. We went out and got lunch together, and I know that I made a difference in his life. Things like that matter to me.
A few years ago, I took another student to South Africa on my ICA, and he was really struggling here and did not feel worthy. He did not feel like school was for him, or that he could make it. We went to South Africa and had this amazing experience. He taught math and English to students in middle grades (5,6,7) and found himself. He recognized the agency that he has. He too is a teacher today and is doing just great work.
Last story–a [Communications] major was graduating and did not know where to go to graduate school, and received an offer from Northwestern, which is a top com school. I was going to a conference in Chicago to present a paper, and I said, “you know what? Come with me. I’ll take you to Northwestern, and we’ll go look at it.” She flew out with me, I did my conference, and then we toured the school. Today this student is a well-regarded reporter for the New York Times. I’ve had a chance to really make a difference in the lives of our students.
Q: What about your South Africa ICA will you miss the most?
Dr. Cornish: Well, truth be told, I am going to talk with the folks in the Ed department at Ithaca to see if they can partner with Goucher, and if we can have an Ithaca/Goucher partnership, so that my ICA can continue with students from both schools.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your background after graduating from your undergrad at Goucher, and how you’ve seen Baltimore change as your home city over the past few decades?
Dr. Cornish: I started teaching in the Baltimore City public school system, so that was my first career. I was a teacher and an administrator in the school system that educated me. I received a quality education there, and the people with whom I worked were stellar teachers in the classroom. Over the years, I’ve seen our school system decline, because we had this period where people were going into teaching who weren’t certified to teach. They were taking alternative routes to education and sometimes that works. However, schools that need the most ability also need teachers who know how to teach, who are in this for the long haul, and not for the short term. That is one of the things that I’ve seen in the time that I’ve been here, is the school system struggle. Even as it gets smaller, we still have schools that are very successful and some schools that are under-performing horribly, and I struggle with that. What can we who are in the teacher/education business, if I could use that term, do to provide more quality teachers for Baltimore City public schools, and to make it a place where people want to work? Often people are afraid to work in the city, so how do we combat those negative stereotypes about the system and the city in particular?
Q: How do you see Goucher’s larger role in that environment?
Dr. Cornish: Goucher has always had a social justice focus, mission, understanding, and commitment, so we have been very active in the schools, through community based learning and through our education department. We have three or four professional development schools within the Baltimore City public school system and we are committed to doing that work.
Q: What do you think you’ll miss the most professionally about working at Goucher?
Dr. Cornish: I loved this position most of all, the one that I currently have. I really enjoyed being the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies. It gave me a chance to support my colleagues on the faculty and staff. It gave me an opportunity to work with colleagues across different divisions of the college. It gave me the opportunity to be a student advocate, and that’s what I love most of all. Students knew if they needed help that they should come here. I appreciated the fact that they trusted me with their joys, with their sorrows, with their disappointments, and with their challenges. I got a chance to bring all of me to this position, and so that’s what I’m going to miss here, but also what I look forward to doing at Ithaca.
Q: Do you have any favorite Goucher events?
Dr. Cornish: I love new student convocation, because we are welcoming new students into the academy and we get a chance for them to see our traditions. That’s a new tradition that started with President Bowen. I love Get Into Goucher, well, some parts of it (laughs). If I’m being honest, there were other parts of it where I was worried about students making informed decisions, so I would always say to my students on GIG, “I need you to watch out for one another. I need you to make informed decisions and if someone’s doing something to excess, I need you to look out for your peer and just make sure everybody stays safe.” I love Baccalaureate and I love Convocation. I love to see our students celebrated for the honors they’ve achieved each spring.
Q: How does that feel, watching students that you’ve built relationships with for 4+ years graduate?
Dr. Cornish: I gave birth to one child, but I’ve had the opportunity to be a role model, and a mother figure, for many students, hundreds of students. I am as proud of them as they leave here as I will be of my own child when he graduates from here on May 25th.
Q: Considering how many students you have helped and guided throughout their time here, what would you say to the students currently leaving their undergraduate careers here?
Dr. Cornish: Continue to believe in yourself. When you are struggling, seek help at the moment of the struggle. Don’t wait until it’s too late, or until you feel it’s too late. Continue to strive and to do great work. Continue to make a difference in the world, because that’s what Goucher students do. They make a difference in the world. Continue to question what you see, and continue to challenge that what you think is wrong. Continue to believe that the education you’ve received here will indeed enable you to embody and live up to the Goucher motto, which is “Prove all things and hold fast that which is good.” That would be my message.
Q: What is the biggest change that you’ve seen in the community and institution in your time as Associate Provost?
Dr. Cornish: The positive change is curricular and co-curricular people working together. You know, one used to talk about the academic side of the house and the student affairs side of the house. Over the last few years we have been focused on having one house, and how these sides can come together to support our students in all ways. To me that’s the biggest positive change that I’ve seen.
Q: How do you see that moving forward after your time here?
Dr. Cornish: I think that we need to continue to collaborate across divisions and to seize opportunities for collaborative work. As you may know, OIS is moving over here (Van Meter), so having OIS, CEO, and CBL within the academic building, creates this synergy where it makes sense for us to work together curricularly and co curricularly to help our students achieve success.
Q: What is the biggest obstacle you’ve seen the college overcome in your time here?
Dr. Cornish: We’re still working on retention, and that’s everybody’s job. It doesn’t belong to just one person, it belongs to all of us. How do we make sure that one student who enters Goucher in the freshman year, graduates from Goucher four years later? That’s our challenge. It’s one that I think we can meet, but it’s going to take all of us to meet it.
Dr. Cornish’s South Africa ICA is one tradition from her work at Goucher that she hopes to continue, and her program there has unquestionably had an impact on the students that she has taken. Alumni Chris Riley remembers his relationship with La Jerne, and the ICA he went on in 2013 as transformative. Chris said that, “Before the ICA, like many others, I thought I knew what South Africa was like. While there we were teaching reading and writing to students, I remember a specific evening while at dinner, one of the Goucher students brought up the differences in what we hold as values between their culture and ours. Through that dinner we had some of the most engaging conversations I’ve been a part of. La Jerne was there at dinner with us, asking about our perceptions and thoughts on how values and cultures differ. She steered and engaged in the conversation with all of us. It is because of this specific conversation that my views of education around the world changed completely. Because of Dr. Cornish, and the trip she lead, I have become a better, more aware person. I can say without a doubt that, like many others, Dr. Cornish has changed my life for the better.”
Dr. La Jerne Cornish has changed and touched many a student’s life for the better during her time here, and she will be missed greatly. As one of the first women of color at a predominately white school, Dr. La Jerne has been crucial to forming a sense of community for people of color on campus. Senior Amielia Gilbert said that, “Dr. Cornish has made a positive impact on my Goucher experience. Academically, she has helped guide me in the right direction as far as my major and minor and in finding my niche. Her presence and dinners at her house made people of color on this campus feel very welcomed and loved. Coming in as a freshman, not knowing anyone, the upperclassmen people of color who knew La Jerne connected with us and helped us form a big happy family. She will be missed.”
Photo Credit: Dr. La Jerne Cornish. Photo Credit: goucher.edu