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Courses benefit students and the community

It might be a toss-up as to who derives the greatest benefit from Professor Franco Taverna’s Human Biology community engaged learning courses: the students who participate or the community members they assist.

Photo of: Silkan Kaur Bains. Maria Fakhoury and Franco Taverna sitting at a table

Students Silkan Kaur Bains and Maria Fakhoury with Franco Taverna. Photo: Diana Tyszko.

In two of the four courses that Taverna teaches, Exercise and Mental Health, and Dementia, students are required to volunteer weekly with an organization that addresses the focus of the course and complete a related project.

An opportunity to give back

“The students work and learn with individuals and organizations in the community, which isn’t something they typically get to do in courses,” Taverna said.  “They have an opportunity to give back in a way that has a big impact.”

Aleena Amjad Hafeez, a fourth-year neuroscience and sociology student, spent her exercise and mental health placement at Progress Place, a community-based organization that provides psychosocial rehabilitation for people with mental illness. She and classmate Laura Sanchez developed two exercise classes: one for mobile clients and one that offered seated exercise. They also created a binder that contains research about the target population, the benefits of exercise, music options and sociability opportunities.

“We’re exercise enthusiasts, but we’re not trained, so we had to do a lot of research to develop the programs and learn how to show things to people,” Amjad Hafeez said.

The programs have been so popular that the women were hired to continue delivering them during the spring semester, and the pair has since developed a dance-based class for young adults and offers individual instruction.

Exercise benefits the brain

“Everyone talks about how exercise is good for the body and for cardiovascular health, but no one talks about the benefits for learning and the brain,” said Amjad Hafeez. “There are actually chemical systems at work that make people feel better.

“We recorded the participants’ mood ratings at the beginning and end of each class, and we never had a participant who didn’t feel better afterward.”

She noted that subconsciously, she still felt there was a stigma to mental illness until she began her placement.

Course made “a dramatic impact on me”

“You realize that anyone can have a mental health condition,” Amjad Hafeez said. “You learn a lot about disabilities and how they can affect people.  That had such a dramatic impact on me.”

Maria Fakhoury, a fourth-year double major in neuroscience and psychology, chose to study neuroscience because of a family history of dementia and plans to become a clinical neuropsychologist. Her placement at the O’Neill Centre, a long-term care facility, has made her “determined to find a solution to dementia:  to prevent it or to find a way to make sufferers’ lives more bearable.”

Each student in the dementia course is assigned a resident to visit and assist. For their final project, they must create a representation of the resident’s life, such as a video, a story or a collage.

“It’s really great,” Fakhoury of the relationship she has formed with her resident. “She loves to talk and she has lived a nice, rich life. She was very sad, but when I sit with her, she ends up cheering up. It makes all the difference.”

She plans to continue visiting after the course ends.

“Eye-opening and humbling” experience

“It has been a great experience,” she said. “It’s one thing to learn about the genes and proteins involved in dementia, but it’s a complete other thing to see the behaviour happening. It’s eye-opening and humbling.”

Taverna says the placements challenge students in a different way than coursework.

“I get to assess very different types of skills and excellence in the students,” he said. “They step up in ways you’d never be able to guess.”