Meet Samantha Blostein: CSAHS Global Engagement Specialist
What is it like working in a cross-appointed position at the University of Guelph? This blog post offers an inside look into Samantha Blostein’s experience as the Global Engagement Specialist working between the Community Engaged Scholarship Institute (CESI), the Guelph Institute of Development Studies (GIDS), and the College of Social and Applied Human Sciences (CSAHS). Samantha is deeply committed to community-engaged teaching and learning. She brings enthusiasm for global community partnerships, commitment to critical and ethical practices, and genuine care to her work at the University of Guelph.
Let’s start with the basics: tell us your name and your current position.
Sure! My name is Samantha Blostein. I’m CESI’s Global Engagement Specialist, a cross-appointed position between CESI, GIDS, and CSAHS at the University of Guelph. My role is to increase understanding of best practices in international experiential learning, provide capacity to support global community engagement, and contribute to scholarship and methodological innovation in the field.
What motivated you to become involved in community-engaged research, and how did you find your current role as the Global Engagement Specialist?
My journey started in my master's degree, when I was studying sociology with a focus on gender and development. I worked on a community-based research project at a women's organization in Nicaragua, and from that experience I was completely hooked. When I came back after my field research, I looked for other opportunities to do applied social research and that's how I found CESI, where I worked as a graduate student. I also wanted to be involved in my local community, so I started connecting and networking with other practitioners interested in similar social justice issues.
I began working with community benefit and government organizations to provide research by writing literature reviews, designing data collection tools, conducting qualitative and quantitative data analysis and synthesizing information, focusing on knowledge mobilization and sharing best practices. I built up my professional confidence with the help of two strong female mentors, and in 2015 I launched my consulting business. About a year later I took on a short term position coordinating the Research Shop at CESI, which led me to my current role as Global Engagement Specialist.
How did you initially make the connection between CESI and GIDS?
At the time, the CESI Director connected with the GIDS Director because there was a desire among students and within development studies across Canada to have more community-engaged learning opportunities. They worked together to create the cross-appointed Global Engagement Specialist position to plan, develop and implement community-engaged learning opportunities involving local and international organizations, students and faculty members.
What are the key components of your job?
Initially, my primary responsibility was to create the IDEV*3300 Engaging in Development Practice course offered through International Development Studies (IDS). This course provides students with an opportunity to engage with development practitioners in a real-world context where they address community research priorities. In creating IDEV*3300 I reviewed over 25 development program structures and learning outcomes from institutions throughout Canada, consulted with experts in international experiential learning, and gathered best practices from various university programs to figure out how to structure the course format. I am really proud to have formally integrated community-engaged experiential learning into this course and to provide opportunities for students to meaningfully engage with development practitioners. Part of my Global Engagement Specialist role involves doing background research to make sure that the project is relevant for partners while ensuring there's enough in the international development context for the students to analyze and investigate. Through teaching the course, I support the students’ projects and engage in relationship development and management with the partners.
How has your role evolved over time?
Once the course was designed and being offered, we identified a need to evaluate its success. The CESI Director, Dr. Elizabeth Jackson, and I have been conducting research to document course impacts and publish those findings, so that we can inform the ongoing conversation around global community engagement. We've been using the data in the meantime to adapt the course based on student feedback. I’m also currently working with the CSAHS Dean’s Office on several equity, diversity and inclusion projects and I am on the GIDS Anti-Racism Working Group leading the survey sub-working group to better understand and address experiences of racism for students, faculty and staff within the IDS programs.
What kind of opportunities for students have you created through this role?
To date, a total of 81 students have worked with nine local and international organizations such as Cuso International, the Guelph Community Health Centre and the County of Wellington Settlement Services through IDEV*3300. The course also explores topics such as intersectionality and anti-oppressive frameworks; this is done by bringing in speakers from diverse community development organizations and by sharing learnings and the resources from many of the agencies that I’ve worked with over the years. Every step of the way, students are learning to be adaptable to emergent research projects, to communicate effectively, and to be responsive to the priorities of community partners. I am also working with emerging graduate student researchers to tackle the data analysis for the course outcomes research.
Tell me about the benefits of your job. What parts are your favourite?
My favourite part is working with students and learning how they think about social issues. Students have fantastic energy and fresh ideas, and that really drives partners’ enthusiasm and interest in the research. They also bring perspectives that I don't necessarily have; students are growing up in the current time and are the most up to date when it comes to technology and pop culture and having their finger on the pulse of mass culture. It’s super inspiring to see students find their voices as leaders and power as changemakers, and I find myself thinking about research, scoping projects and implementing them in novel ways because of my experience working with brilliant students.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered as a conduit between CESI and GIDS? What have you learned about yourself or your work amongst these challenges?
There is a lot of work that goes into managing a program like this - there are lots of moving parts and distinct types of stakeholders. Even though it’s a lot of work, it’s fun because I get to connect with people around the world and think about creative ways that I can take a large project and make it the right size to fit into a semester for students to take on. One of the things I learned early on in this role is how important it is to have institutional support. It's essential, which is why part of my job is to develop buy-in into the process so that the benefits of it in the program are clear. When we run the community knowledge exchange event to present the students’ research at the end of the semester, we open it to colleagues across CSAHS, CESI and GIDS. Students and partners find it thrilling to see established researchers taking interest in their work - I am very lucky to work within a College and at a University where community-engaged experiential learning is so clearly valued. Evaluation research data also suggests that the course is meeting learning outcomes and having positive impacts for partners, students, the College and both CESI and GIDS.
What advice would you give to other students, recent grads or others who are looking for a career that could potentially be collaborative in multiple ways?
If you're looking for a job, focus more on what you can offer the organization and how you fit the needs or goals of the agency. If the role you’re pursuing is collaborative, really think about what you can offer each of the groups involved. Make connections. Talk to people! It can be scary, especially now it’s harder than ever to network, but people are looking for human connection. Most importantly, remember: rather than feeling like you must commit to one thing right away, think about your career and your future as a chance to explore your curiosities. Do lots of research, do informational interviews and meet with people who share your passion in a field. Find out about their career. Don't feel scared to try something and see if you like it. From the show The Magic School Bus, I really like Ms. Frizzle’s advice: “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.” The Global Engagement Specialist position has allowed me to create a course that is having positive impacts for students and partners, to more fully explore those impacts, and now to branch out and work on equity, diversity and inclusion projects, and I'm so excited to see where it leads as more needs and opportunities are identified.