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Research initiative by U of T’s Munk School helps reimagine ways to reach the hardest to reach

Elizabeth Assefa, Marin MacLeod and Natalie Boychuk with their arms around each other, smiling

Reach Project students Elizabeth Assefa, Marin MacLeod and Natalie Boychuk (left to right), on a field trip to Jordan to research a cash-assistance program for refugees. Photo courtesy of the Reach Project.

Marin MacLeod, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, can pinpoint the moment the proverbial penny dropped.

As part of her involvement with the Reach Project, a research initiative at the U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, she and a group of students were busy researching a cash-assistance program led by the UN Refugee Agency. It was the end of a long day when MacLeod came to the realization that has shaped her career decisions since.

“I just had that moment where I realized that doing ‘business as usual’ is just not good enough,” says MacLeod. “If we want to reach the poorest and most vulnerable, we need to innovate and challenge the status quo.”

MacLeod, who recently landed a job with Grand Challenges Canada, says that her love for “bold thinking” is a direct result of her participation in the Reach Project, which studies innovative ways of delivering services to vulnerable, hard-to-reach communities – one of the core challenges of the UN sustainable development goals.

For one term, student researchers meticulously study development initiatives that have done exceptionally well at reaching marginalized, underserved communities, before spending up to 10 days in the field, conducting in-depth interviews with local stakeholders. So far, students have generated six case studies, shining a light on the secret recipe for success behind humanitarian and social services around the globe. Each case study uncovers new insights into important global policy topics such as the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, or how to provide hard-to-reach populations with access to government services through biometric data.

“The aim of the Reach Project is to both create new knowledge but also knowledge that will make an impact by informing real-world policy,” says Joseph Wong, founder of the Reach Project and lead investigator. “I always stress that the research that comes out of the Reach Project is not just student research. It’s world-class research that just happens to be generated by some of the world’s most bold and smart students.”

Wong, U of T’s associate vice-president and vice-provost, international experience, and the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation at the Munk School, started the Reach Project in 2015 to investigate and uncover innovative solutions for inclusive growth, and provide undergraduate and graduate students with the opportunity to conduct field research in an interdisciplinary, global setting.

Students took him up on the offer: For its latest cohort, the Reach Project received over 70 applications. To accommodate some of the demand, Wong has grown the Reach Project from one team of five students to four teams of 16 students, currently studying cases in Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Palestine and Ethiopia.

Natalie Boychuk, a third-year Peace, Conflict and Justice program undergraduate student at the Munk School, was one of the lucky ones to snag a spot last year.

Conducting on-the-ground research has provided her with essential career skills undergrad students normally have little opportunity to acquire, she says, such as drafting and submitting ethics proposals or conducting qualitative, on-the-ground research through stakeholder interviews. Even more importantly, her experience has ignited a passion to play an active role in making a difference for those most in need.

“Being part of the Reach Project has really helped me to understand the real-life barriers that keep refugee families from thriving. It’s completely different to academically research an issue versus being in the field and seeing first-hand what is happening. It has shaped the way I think about my goals and what I want to do professionally.”

Her time in the field has also inspired her to help newly arrived refugees in her community. Boychuk has taken first steps to volunteer for a Toronto organization that offers refugees assistance with  housing and eligibility interviews.

MacLeod adds that on top of acquiring hands-on research skills and gaining a clear understanding of her own career path, collaborating with students and subject-matter experts from disciplines across the university has helped her discover new ways of thinking and problem-solving.

“The Reach Project is a chance for students to learn the importance of working across disciplines and discover new ways of looking at problems from different angles,” Wong says. “It’s also an opportunity to break through the walls of academia and explore innovative solutions in the global development space in tandem with policy makers and NGOs.”

Joseph Wong and 6 students sitting in an open-air bus in front of a two-story white plastered builiding

Joseph Wong, the Reach Project’s founder, and Reach Project students on a field trip to South Africa. Photo courtesy of the Reach Project.

One of those opportunities is the Reach Project’s upcoming symposium on Nov. 30. Students will explore new development narratives and innovation through a series of panel discussions. Student teams will get a chance to present their research findings to policy-makers from Global Affairs Canada, Médecins Sans Frontières, the World Bank, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and other key players in the global development space.

Wong hopes to turn this year’s symposium into a regular event in an effort to foster an open dialogue and collaboration between academia, policy-makers, and students, and connect student researchers with future employers.

“Reach Project graduates will go into the world and make sure we meet the sustainable development goals by 2030,” he says. “They are tomorrow’s leaders, and programs like ours help them to persevere, be dogged, and be prepared for a rapidly changing world.”

The Reach Project is made possible by a partnership between the Munk School of Global Affiars and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.