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Arts & Science News

Community-engaged learning program transforms student’s perspective

Photo: Diana Tyszko

Photo: Diana Tyszko

“A lot of things don’t fit into perfect boxes”

University of Toronto undergraduate Stephanie Wang felt like she had come full circle when she chose a student placement with an agency in the community where she grew up but she soon discovered her journey of understanding had just begun.

The placement was part of NEW495Y – an independent community-engaged learning course – in which Wang said she learned to “embrace the messiness and imperfections” at the intersection of academic goals and community work. The capstone course, part of the Community Engaged Learning (CEL) program at New College, turned out to be the best way to experience the relationships between those two worlds.

“A lot of things don’t fit into perfect boxes,” said Wang, who spent eight months at Warden Woods Community Centre in Scarborough for her placement.

One of main challenges the kinesiology and global health student faced was learning how to communicate with a diverse community that seemed to break all her pre-conceived notions about “inclusive language” in the way they described themselves and their work.

“Even though I’ve done community work for a long time, I had to keep an open mind and listen to the other side first through their lens before sharing my own perceptions,” Wang said after taking part in a panel discussion at an April 11 symposium at New College celebrating the CEL program. Wang had already founded Health Out Loud – a health education charity with five chapters across Ontario – before arriving at Warden Woods.

Expanded this year to 23 students from the usual 12 to 14 with the assistance of the STEP program at the Faculty of Arts & Science, NEW495Y draws students from a diverse range of disciplines, including English, gender studies, history, international relations and political science.

Each year students in the course take part in an annual symposium which provides class members with the chance to share what they’ve learned with an audience that includes community agencies and students considering the course.

“It’s important to share, otherwise it just sits inside you,” said Margaret Ebifegha, an equity studies student who spent her placement at the Workers’ Action Centre, helping them advocate for an increase in the provincial minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“When you get a chance to articulate what you’ve experienced, others get to learn through you as well,” said Ebifegha.

Reflecting on their experiences is a big part of NEW495Y, said acting coordinator Sheila Stewart, a lecturer who taught the second half of the course this year. Students spend at least eight hours a week at their placements and keep journals, write blogs and make class presentations as they go through the process of reconciling their expectations with the reality of community work.

“They start to draw on their strengths and gain confidence as they do more things,” said Stewart, who has a background in adult literacy community work. “It gives them fascinating and complex on-the-ground experience.”

The community groups benefit from dedicated students who often lend them technological savvy, research skills and fund-raising assistance, a major part of the focus for many non-profits.

Learning to work with each other is a “delicate dance” for the University and the community, “but when they come together, it is very powerful,” said Stewart.

“They need each other, because neither exists in isolation, and they share a lot of the same goals around contributing to the social good and community development.”

It is a collaboration that may only have scratched the surface so far. Over the last 10 years, more than 20,000 University of Toronto students have taken service-learning courses, said Lisa Chambers, director of U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships, and experiential learning initiatives continue to expand across the university.

Linzi Manicom, the program coordinator of New College’s Community for Engage Learning, said she will continue to “scale up” NEW495Y while also developing a new community engaged research seminar course for next year.

“We’re always working to build partnerships with community organizations that reflect the objectives of our program.”