Democracy Summer Fellowships

2019 Democracy Summer fellows meet with Congressman Brian Higgins

Activate your civic right to strengthen American democracy! 

Test your interest in public service careers during this historic time in government. The 2020 summer fellowships in Buffalo, NY are hosted by three outstanding officials: US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Assembly Member Sean Ryan, and Erie County Deputy Executive Maria Whyte.

Fellows will each have an individual project with a specific official, participate in workshops on government, be provided opportunities for community learning and service, and may choose to live in group housing with other Cornell students. Open to Cornell ILR undergraduates.

About the Program

Today’s complex urban environments present constantly evolving challenges and opportunities, creating an increasing need for versatile leaders with the ability to forge connections and lead across sectors.

Democracy Summer Fellowships provide a unique learning community based on:

  • Engaged learning
  • A cohort model of peer learning and group work
  • Direct interaction with public officials and staffers
  • The opportunity to learn about career paths in public service

Democracy Summer provides insight on the issues and access to leaders who are addressing major challenges through government. It provides a strong grounding in critical thinking, group dynamics, and problem solving. Individual components include:


Weekly seminars develop individual knowledge, skills and the opportunity to interview community leaders. Fellows will learn from presenters about the opportunities available in government-related fields and develop networks to support their career goals.

Field Placements

Eight week individual projects: one each in federal, state and county government.


Fellows complete group and individual projects related to public service. The group project will focus on the role and impact of ILRies in NYS government. The Democracy Summer Fellows will research and compile a record of ILR alumni who have gone onto careers in public service, with a focus on NY state impact.

2020 Public Office Placements

United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

After attending Albany’s Academy of Holy Names, Senator Gillibrand graduated in 1984 from the Emma Willard School in Troy, New York – the first all-women’s high school in the United States. A magna cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College in 1988, Gillibrand went on to receive her law degree from the UCLA School of Law in 1991 and served as a law clerk on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. After working as an attorney in New York City for more than a decade, Senator Gillibrand served as Special Counsel to United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Andrew Cuomo during the Clinton Administration. She then worked as an attorney in Upstate New York before becoming a member of Congress. Throughout her time in the Senate, Senator Gillibrand has been a leader in some of the toughest fights in Washington. She led the effort to repeal the “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policy that banned gays from serving openly in the military; she wrote the STOCK Act, which made it illegal for members of Congress to financially benefit from inside information; and she won the long fight to provide permanent health care and compensation to the 9/11 first responders and community survivors who are sick with diseases caused by the toxins at Ground Zero. Senator Gillibrand brought Democrats and Republicans together to win these legislative victories.

Assembly Member Sean Ryan, District 149

Assembly Member Ryan was elected to the NYS Assembly in 2011.  He currently chairs the Committee on Libraries and Education Technology. Assembly Member Ryan is a graduate of SUNY College at Fredonia and Brooklyn Law School, and is admitted to practice law in New York State. Assembly Member Ryan’s broad legal experience includes work for Neighborhood Legal Services, private law practice collaboration with the Learning Disabilities Association of WNY, concentrating on the rights of disabled students, and the Legal Aide Bureau of Buffalo. In 2008, Assembly Member Ryan began working with People United for Sustainable Housing, Inc. to create a non-profit development entity called the Buffalo Neighborhood Stabilization Company, Inc. (BNSC). He served as the Executive Director and General Counsel of BNSC and worked to create a redevelopment plan for a section of the West Side of Buffalo.  Assembly Member Ryan has served on the Board of Directors and provided legal representation and guidance to numerous nonprofit organizations including Buffalo Niagara River Keeper, Housing Opportunities Made Equal, and the Coalition for Economic Justice.

Hon. Maria Whyte, Erie County Deputy Executive

Maria Whyte is currently the Deputy County Executive (DCE) in Erie County, NY. She has served in this post since January 2015 and is the first female in a generation to hold the title.  As DCE she advances the County’s most significant economic development projects and provides strategic operational support for the County’s many departments. From January 2012 to January 2015, Maria served Erie County as the Commissioner of the Department of Environment and Planning (DEP).  Prior to becoming the DEP Commissioner, Maria served six years as the 6th District Erie County Legislator, representing Buffalo's Westside, Black Rock, and Riverside. She also served as the Democratic Majority Leader during her entire tenure on the Legislature and is the first freshman Legislator to ever be elected Majority Leader.  Maria graduated summa cum laude and has a B.A. in International Relations with Honors from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. 


The application for summer 2020 is now closed.

Questions? Contact Megan Connelly at or (716) 852-4193