With ‘Migrations,’ Big Red Scholars Navigate a World in Motion

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By Lindsay Lennon

At face value, a whale in the Arctic Ocean may have little in common with a Central American political refugee. What connects them, and countless other populations, is their broad identity as migrators.

Also: they’re among the hundreds of subjects explored by Cornell’s Migrations initiative, the University’s first-ever Global Grand Challenge—an initiative to unite the Hill’s top scholars under a common mission to tackle Earth’s problems.

Actors in a play on stage depicting a scene where they are rowing boats
Among the many projects Migrations has supported is the show An Odyssey, performed at the Hangar Theatre in 2021. (Provided)

While much of the work now under the Migrations umbrella was underway for years or even decades before the initiative’s establishment, it has served as an interdisciplinary bridge between faculty across the Hill whose fields of study are impacted by the movement of people, animals, plants, or even microbes.

“All of these things are so interconnected, and that’s where Cornell really specializes,” says Wendy Wolford, vice provost for international affairs and member of the Migrations faculty leadership team. “What we’ve done for the past three years is pull together a conversation across campus between people who have always thought it would be neat to work together, but this has given them the space to do so.”

Since 2019, Migrations has grown to encompass an expanding body of research, workshops, conferences, seminars—even theater, art, creative writing, and a podcast. The initiative has awarded more than $1 million in grants for research, community engagement, and curriculum projects, and engages students through the Undergraduate Migrations Scholars initiative and a new migrations minor.

Wendy Wolford of Cornell University addreses an audience while standing and holding a microphone with a group of people sitting beside her.
Wolford announces Migrations as the first Global Grand Challenge in 2019. (Jason Koski / Cornell University)

As Wolford explains, the theme of “migrations” emerged from a series of conversations in 2018.

The campus community—including President Martha Pollack, deans, faculty, and students—came together to ponder how the University was uniquely qualified to confront some of the world’s most pressing issues.

“Where can we really make a difference?” Wolford recalls asking. “What are the questions we could add some weight to?”

The symposium included a writing competition, where students were asked to identify—in 300 words or fewer—the greatest problem facing humanity, and how Cornell could help address it.

It became clear, Wolford notes, that every school and college across the University had faculty who are leading experts in fields relevant to the comprehensive study of migration. A task force was formed, and the theme was officially announced in fall 2019.

Migrations has grown to encompass an expanding body of research, workshops, conferences, seminars—even theater, art, creative writing, and a podcast.

“We have more migration across the world today than we ever have in the past, and it’s going to continue,” says Professor Stephen Yale-Loehr ’77, JD ’81, an expert on immigration law who served on the task force. “We need to understand how all these different kinds of migration affect and relate to each other—that’s why it’s so important to study this from an interdisciplinary and interspecies approach.”

Most Migrations-supported research has been heavily rooted in the social sciences. For example, when Yale-Loehr wanted to assess the awareness of public healthcare benefits among immigrants, he partnered with a Migrations colleague (Gunisha Kaur ’06, a Weill Cornell Medicine anesthesiologist specializing in human rights research) on a qualitative survey.

A herd of elephants in Southern Africa
Professor Steve Osofsky, DVM ’89, has long studied the effects of fences on migratory elephants and other wildlife in southern Africa. (Steve Osofsky)

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Their work resulted in a website, created by colleagues in CALS’ communication department, where immigrants can easily research health benefits for which they may be eligible.

Similarly, many other Migrations topics are centered on cross-border immigration. One ongoing project led by Patricia Campos-Medina ’96, MS ’97, executive director of ILR’s Worker Institute, focuses on the stories of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) workers from Central America who arrived as political refugees in the 1980s.

After they were denied asylum in the ’80s, Campos-Medina says, Congress’s solution was to create TPS in 1992, a precarious classification that has made many workers feel like outsiders in their own communities. (President Trump canceled TPS for Central Americans early in his term; under President Biden, their protected status was extended until June 2024.)

Temporary Protected Status workers protest in Washington, D.C.
People with Temporary Protected Status march in Washington, D.C., in 2022. (Provided)

“When you see the crisis at the border, it’s easy to say, ‘Why do they keep coming?’ or ‘We can’t take everybody,’” says Campos-Medina, a native of El Salvador whose parents came to the U.S. as political refugees in the ’80s. “But the reality is that Central Americans have been migrating to the U.S. for a long time, and they never received a proper admission.”

While much of Migrations’ research is people-focused, the initiative is distinct in its inclusion of animal-related scholarship.

For example, Aaron Rice, principal ecologist for the Lab of Ornithology, examined the impact of climate change on bowhead whales in the Alaskan Arctic; they have long been a source of food and fuel for indigenous communities who plan their lives around the whales’ movements.

In Central America, Migrations task force member Amanda Rodewald, the Garvin Professor of Natural Resources and the Environment in CALS, examines the role of human narco-trafficking in the deforestation of biodiversity hotspots, which has displaced the region’s migratory bird species.

Amanda Rodewald of Cornell University and a bird in a net which she captured for research
Professor Amanda Rodewald studies a mourning warbler as part of her research on migratory birds. (Provided)

And in southern Africa, Steve Osofsky, DVM ’89, the Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health & Health Policy and director of Cornell Wildlife Health Center, has spent decades studying the effects of fences—meant to protect domestic beef cattle from contracting foot-and-mouth disease from wild buffalo—on the ancient migratory patterns of the region’s elephants, wildebeests, and other wildlife.

We have more migration across the world today than we ever have in the past, and it’s going to continue.

Law professor Stephen Yale-Loehr ’77, JD ’81

Closer to the Hill, Migrations has supported artistic investigation and performance, particularly through its partnership with the Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative.

Shortly after its launch, the initiative presented an exhibit focused on human migration at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art—a relationship that has continued with the annual Migrations visiting artist program.

And in the 2021­–22 academic year, a local arts group received a Migrations community engagement grant to produce a season of shows—including An Odyssey, a “community-based theatrical spectacular” performed at the Hangar Theatre.

A white car with luggage and belongings on top of it on display in a museum.
The installation Nowhere was part of a Migrations exhibit at the Johnson Museum. (Provided)

In April 2023, Migrations announced its latest round of grant-funded projects.

They include studying the effects of climate transitions on the wildlife of Nilgiris, India; working to document and revitalize two indigenous languages of the Cayuga Lake Basin region; and developing an undergraduate course on Ithaca’s history with the Underground Railroad.

Published April 25, 2023

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