Building Students’ Professional Skills in Community Development: Toward a New Integrated Model

Posted on Wednesday, April 22nd, 2020

Written by Mary Ferguson

This blog post was written by CESI Research Associate, Dr. Mary Ferguson

I have been working with CESI as a part-time Research Associate for the last 7 years, beginning my work here at around the same time as I began work on my PhD in Rural Studies, completed in 2018. I was attracted to CESI because it provides experiential learning for students and supports community-based non-profits and charities with research services that they would otherwise not have access to.

My early work at CESI involved working with student researchers and community groups to develop case studies for the social enterprise sector. It also included working with a regionally based indigenous organization to facilitate food self-determination planning processes. Aside from my role with CESI, I operate a consulting practice, and my partnerships with social enterprises and indigenous organizations provided a way to help build capacity for the Institute in these two areas.

I began having meetings with CESI’s Director Dr. Liz Jackson to explore a new way of engaging students as researchers with community groups. In my consulting practice, I work with many non-profits and charities. We discussed having me work with graduate students to extend the work I was doing with non-profits while providing students with an opportunity to be mentored in applied research and community development. 

Jobs and livelihoods are the aim of most students. For CESI, a model where students can work with an experienced research associate could therefore be a way to provide new pathways for students to diversify their learning and gain professional experience while simultaneously strengthening the non-profit and charitable sector.

Liz and I had a number of meetings and finally decided to move this concept forward on an experimental basis. In the spring 2019, we hired two graduate students, Molly Contini and Brianna Wilson, to work with me. 

Once Molly and Brianna were hired, things got serious. After providing an orientation to our company and the projects we were working on, I was responsible for deciding which clients might benefit most from additional research work beyond our contracted deliverables as well as identifying the potential for the students to learn essential professional skills from that experience.  

When the students and I started to work together we had weekly check-ins and work planning sessions. Together we sifted through the work that needed doing and assigned tasks. I brought them into all aspects of business decision-making, business development and client management so they could understand how a small company works. They developed knowledge and skills in preparing literature reviews, project planning, management, and evaluation skills, including developing logic models, theories of change, learning and evaluation frameworks and evaluation tools. They worked on proposal development and were oriented to feasibility and business planning for social enterprises. Throughout our time together, I was conscious of what was rising to the surface that needed attention, while staying true to the two principles that guided our work through CESI’s lens: did the tasks provide the community partner with something that would not have been done without CESI, and was there experiential learning for the students that they could apply in their careers beyond school.

We debriefed assignments together. This helped the students to see the complexity of projects, and we problem-solved emerging challenges together. We needed to maintain flexibility, for things can change quickly with our clients, but I also worked to ensure that Molly and Brianna could experience complete project and implementation cycles. We built a nimble team, with both students developing their own work plans within the priorities that we identified regularly together.

After two semesters of working with Briana and Molly, and as we reflect on the benefits, challenges and possible impacts of having students work closely with Research Associates, I would identify some key components that are core to making this model work:

  • Services must create tangible benefit for community partners
  • Research engagement by the students needs to augment learning and skill development for post-graduate professional career development
  • A bridge must be built between academic learning and community development to benefit community wellbeing

CESI and I continue to move forward using this model, in a trusting relationship, understanding that we are working on a potential new (additional) way of having CESI students involved in building skills and providing community organizations with research opportunities not typically available to them.

News Archive