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Cornell Creates a New Student Experience with Drupal + Salesforce on Pantheon


The Cornell Student Experience uses Pantheon and Salesforce to manage content and provide an intuitive, customizable user experience.

Cornell University offers hundreds of opportunities for students: study abroad programs, engaged learning with community partners, internship programs, and more. Each one can help students learn more, pursue their passions, even start their future careers. But to take advantage of these opportunities, students previously had to navigate a maze of department and faculty websites. One student described it as the “Cornell Treasure Hunt.”

The Cornell Student Experience Initiative (CSEI) wanted to create a new site with a “Netflix-like experience,” a user-friendly, customizable guide that would make it easy for students to find the most relevant opportunities.The unique nature of the site led the CSEI team to seek partnerships with Message Agency and Pantheon. Together, the three teams built, a fast, beautiful, and intuitive student destination.

We chose Pantheon because we needed somebody who could collaborate with us on a fast-moving, speed-of-light project...we needed a provider that would very quickly work with us when we had questions.

—Shannon Osburn, Assistant Director, CIT - Custom Development, Cornell University

CSEI homepage screenshot

Challenge: Decentralized and Unsearchable

Cornell, like most educational institutions, is made up of many different departments, schools and organizations. Each unit has its own website, and each site has its own way of presenting opportunities to students. In most cases, the presentation was just a page of hyperlinks.

Before launched, the lack of centralized information meant students had to know, somehow, whether a particular department had opportunities and where to find the details. If one department’s opportunities weren’t the right fit, students had to figure out where to look next.

“We really had to stop and think, ‘how do we help students discover and apply to Cornell’s programs?’” Osburn says.

Creating a Solution: When “Find” meets “Do”

The CSEI team quickly realized their complex problem needed an equally robust solution. They needed to manage content with Drupal, but also wanted to manage student applications and data with the Salesforce CRM. They also needed to expose some of that data to end users in Drupal. Both tools needed to work together to create an integrated, personalized student dashboard.

The team chose Message Agency as a partner to help conceptualize how Drupal and Salesforce would work together. Message Agency works with nonprofit organizations, foundations, universities, government agencies, and sustainable businesses. They are also the architects of the Salesforce Suite, a set of Drupal modules that integrates these two powerful solutions.

“How do you manage two tools that both say they can do everything?” says Rebecca Joffrey, IT innovation officer at Cornell. “With Message Agency’s help, we boiled it down to this: Students come to our site to find things and to do things. Drupal is good for the first part, for finding information. When students do something, take an action, we want to leverage Salesforce to personalize the engagement.”

The student experience was the project’s chief concern, of course. But the end product did more than create one useful resource. The new site became a new paradigm for student communication and interaction.

“One of the bigger benefits is how it’s aligning the institution,” says Joffrey. “We’re all coming together around a common way of presenting information. We can support the entire student journey—from discovery of the opportunity to application and onboarding—and make sure all students have equal access to the rich array of opportunities at Cornell.”

Cornell was able to centralize information about opportunities while still allowing  every department to have their own website and content strategy. Each department or unit can leverage to serve as the centralized source of their opportunities and also present those opportunities via a JSON feed  on their own website.



Running on Pantheon: An Elegant New Paradigm for Collaboration

Message Agency is a Pantheon partner agency, so they developed the Drupal/Salesforce interface on Pantheon. “I felt like Pantheon led the way with Multidev,” says Aaron Bauman, senior software engineer at Message Agency. “Having a Multidev and being able to branch and collaborate on branches, being able to share it so easily with other stakeholders, was very valuable for us.”

Osburn agrees. “Multidev was used a great deal on this project,” she says. “It was great to be able to do it so fast, to try out different things on different branches.”

Pantheon’s development tools also sped up the process, especially given the number of projects Cornell manages on Pantheon. Says Bauman, “Terminus is a tool we use all the time. It’s a huge time-saver for us. Not having to leave the command line to get a heads-up view of all the platform assets is a big deal.”

Prior to launching the new site, CSEI project manager and hosting engineer Ryann Levo worked with Pantheon for a pre-launch audit. “Pantheon does quarterly reviews with us,” Levo says. “We suggested they look at this site before we launched, since it was so complex.”

Pantheon evaluated the site’s performance under simulated traffic loads. Given its complexity and image-heavy design, the Pantheon team recommended a higher service level. Once the team made that switch, the difference was striking. “This site is loading a lot of images and a lot of data, and we were having some performance issues,” says Osburn. “When we changed the plan, I was shocked at how dramatic the difference was. It was so nice to see how much that helped. A relatively simple change that can improve performance is always a win.”

The Future on Pantheon: More Collaboration and Innovation

The CSEI team saw the real value of collaboration between Drupal and Salesforce through their work on this project. They plan to carry that lesson to the next phase of CSEI development.

“CRM is often happening within one group within the organization, and the marketing and web expertise live within different teams. Bringing those together is why we ended up with such a good experience for our students,” says Joffrey “Combining IT and marketing benefits everyone, but not a lot of schools do this.” The CSEI team plans to continue developing the opportunities page, and to use the framework to develop more resources that can help students get the most from their college careers.

Before the site went live, the CSEI team tested the user experience with their most important stakeholders: Cornell students. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Students said the site was well-organized, loved that everything was available in one place, and said it was much easier to find what they were looking for. One student said, “This is the most elegant and useful website I’ve ever seen at Cornell.”

Cornell University students needed a centralized resource that could help them take full advantage of the institution’s programs and opportunities. Building that resource took creative thinking and close collaboration between the CSEI team, Message Agency, and Pantheon. Together, the three teams created a simple, intuitive user experience that addresses the complex needs of students, administrators, and staff.


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