Reflections on a New Model of Engagement

Posted on Monday, June 1st, 2020

Written by Molly Contini & Brianna Wilson

In May of 2019, two students were hired to participate in a new-to-us model of engagement led by CESI Director Dr. Elizabeth Jackson and CESI Research Associate Dr. Mary Ferguson. Molly Contini (Industrial-Organizational Psychology) and Brianna Wilson (Applied Social Psychology) were hired to work alongside Mary and her consulting practice to undertake additional research at no cost for select non-profit and charitable groups. This model was designed to be mutually-beneficial; the students were closely mentored by Mary and given the opportunity to diversify their learning and gain professional experience, while the the non-profit and charitable sector was strengthened by receiving additional research.

Molly and Brianna have shared their experiences working at CESI in the blog post below, including what they learned, what they valued, and their advice for fellow students interested in this kind of community-engaged research.

To learn more about this model, please see the accompanying blog post written by Mary, reflecting on her experience and learnings building students' professional skills in community development.  

Reflections from Molly Contini

Headshot of Molly Contini; smiling woman with curly blonde hair

Despite enrolling as an MA student at the University of Guelph in September 2018, I wasn’t aware of the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute until the winter of 2019. In February 2019, a friend asked me if I had seen the Research Shop’s report, which was completed in collaboration with the Community Resource Centre of North and Centre Wellington (CRC), on engaging homeless youth in rural areas. Growing up in rural Wellington County and being familiar with the CRC, I was very curious to learn both about the research targeting my region and the organization that was conducting it. The more I became familiar with CESI, the more I knew I wanted to get involved with the organization. I was very attracted to the opportunity to do more applied work, partner with local organizations, and make an impact within my community.

Working with Dr. Mary Ferguson at CESI has been one of my most rewarding experiences at the University of Guelph. Throughout the past 8 months, I’ve been fortunate to work with upwards of 10 organizations. They are doing meaningful work, but many are under resourced in one way or another. Mary recognized which organizations would benefit from additional assistance and coordinated collaborative work that would enhance their capacity. Within this framework I was afforded the opportunity to apply skills that I’ve developed as a graduate student in a variety of significant and meaningful contexts.

This period of work has also been one of growth and development. Mary has always prioritized my learning and I’ve benefitted greatly from her knowledge and experience. Specifically, I’ve developed technical skills, like conducting qualitative analyses and creating organizational Theory of Change and Logic Models, and soft skills, such as interviewing techniques or supporting underserved populations. I’ve had a hand in social enterprise business planning, aided primary research focused on helping organizations move to financial sustainability, and helped execute organization and project evaluations. Overall, the arrangement to have CESI research assistants work with Mary and her business has been extremely beneficial; it’s allowed me to participate in a variety of projects at organizations which I may not otherwise have had access to.

Mary, like the majority of organizations we’ve worked with, brings her enthusiasm for community-based research to every project we’ve been a part of. Through working with her, I’ve learned so much about different opportunities available to me after graduation, the non-profit and social enterprise sectors, and how to apply academic skills in authentic situations. As a graduate student, this has been crucial to my development as a research-practitioner, and I can imagine that other graduate students would also appreciate similarly immersive experiences in community-based research.

Reflections from Brianna Wilson

I applied to work at the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI) in May of 2019. As a current student in the Applied Social Psychology program at U of G, I have always had an interest in conducting research that has a direct impact on the community. I’ve also worked in the non-profit sector, which has provided me insight into how valuable evidence-based practices are. I was motivated to join CESI because their work invites me to combine my frontline experience and research skills to ultimately conduct work that betters the community through a social justice orientation.

I was hired along with Molly Contini; we were invited to work with Dr. Mary Ferguson, a Research Associate at CESI. This position differed slightly from the other Graduate Student Research Assistant positions because we worked directly with Mary on projects being done through her consulting company. We worked with a variety of community organizations on projects related to social enterprise development, domestic violence prevention, and food self-determination. Through working with these community partners, I learned a great deal about creating logic models and theories of change, how to conduct feasibility studies and needs assessments, and about the concept of social enterprise in general. Molly and I commonly worked on many projects simultaneously; I enjoyed this aspect quite a bit because I was always learning and diversifying my experiences. It also helped me to develop time and project management skills.

Though I’ve had the chance to work on a diverse array of projects, the most valuable experience thus far has been working on the evaluation planning of a domestic violence prevention program. This particular experience stuck out to me because we were able to work on the project from the very beginning and watch the progression and development of various elements, which was a great learning experience. This project is also quite complex; being involved in the development of the evaluation plan taught me a lot about project management, clear communication, and collaboration. Molly and I were also provided with the opportunity to conduct a literature review on risk assessment tools, and I hope that our work in this area helped to make a significant contribution to the project.

Working with Mary also taught me what success can look like with community-engaged research. From my experience, success can take many different forms depending on the community partner and the project at hand. For instance, success could mean publishing a report and disseminating important information that resulted from the research. It could also include making a positive impact on/for/with community members or clients of a community partner. Alternatively, success might involve improving a program or agency more directly. While assisting with various projects through CESI, I have been fortunate enough to witness success in many of its forms.

If I could leave some advice for future students working in this position, I would recommend coming into the space with an open mind. As graduate students, we tend to narrowly focus on one research topic and devote ourselves to that field. Working with Mary and CESI provides students with the opportunity to learn about a multitude of topics and research areas and gain experience working with a variety of community organizations. I suggest making the most out of every experience and savouring moments in which you are learning a new skill or about a new topic.

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