Community Engaged Learning: My first experiences in growing a partnership
Learning with Impact, a photo exhibit sharing the experiences of students involved in community engaged learning, was showcased at 10C downtown Guelph over the month of February. This exhibit was put on by CESI to offer insight into the experiences of students and community organizations who worked together as part of various research projects. It highlighted the value of community-campus engagement both for community organizations and for students, and how these partnerships can lead to rich learning and meaningful impact. It certainly did for me.
Going into a community engaged learning project, you don’t really know what to expect, especially if it’s your first time. As an undergraduate student, entering this partnership was as simple as registering for a class – in my case, a seminar called “Development in Practice”. I knew nothing about what the project would be, who the partners would be, or what was expected of me. The only thing I knew was that before taking Development in Practice, my university career had focused heavily on the theory and literature related to development issues, but hadn’t included much practical application of how to tackle these challenges. Joining a community-oriented, hands-on project was at times nerve-wracking, exciting, overwhelming, engaging but most of all, rewarding. Now that I’ve finished the course, I can say without a doubt that it will be one of the most transferable and memorable classes I’ve taken.
Students in the course were given two project options associated with two different community organizations. The project I chose was designed to support Rural Emphasis, an organization supporting homeless youth in the Wellington region, as they prepared to conduct a program evaluation. We partnered with Ron Mackinnon and Chrissy Scott from Rural Emphasis, who became our mentors for the next 4 months. Our role as students was to gather best practices on how they could conduct an evaluation internally. We were eager to start but also hesitant because it was our first experience in this type of partnership. How often should we connect with our partners? Will they be bothered if we are constantly reaching out with new questions? How much do they want to be involved with our process?
As the project continued, I really began to learn how to engage and began to feel comfortable working in this new territory. By the end of the semester, the best part of the project was actually the engagement with the community partners (which was expressed as mutually rewarding on both sides)! It helped us students feel that our work was valued – I mean, for the first time ever our work was being used, it had a purpose. Every step of the way, Ron and Chrissy were encouraging and appreciative of the results we had and eager to meet with us or help us overcome any obstacles. They were our mentors in this project, but also people I can look up to as changemakers in our community. Our course instructor, Samantha Blostein, also played a key role in ensuring the success of our projects. This course wouldn’t have been nearly as fun, engaging, or meaningful without her guidance. I think I can speak for all of the students when saying that Sam had become a mentor to all of us, a most encouraging and supportive instructor, who was willing to go over the top in helping these partnerships succeed.
So, how did this learning experience change the way I’ll approach my education and my career? I think what this course offered most was a greater understanding of how our formal education in development studies can be transferred to support our own community. It provided me with hands-on experience in community development, and the confidence to form connections with community partners. As an international development student, it also helped solidify that I want to work in local community development for my future career. There is nothing more rewarding than working within your own community and witnessing the partnerships flourish.
Shauna is an undergraduate student in International Development at the University of Guelph. She’s interested in participatory and community-based approaches to supporting the most vulnerable populations and in community-level adaptive climate policy. Development in Practice was her first experience participating in community engaged learning, and she hopes to bring these practices into her future endeavors.