Reflections on Community Engaged Learning: Engaging in Development Practice

Posted on Monday, July 12th, 2021

Written by Emily Kerr

In the Winter semester of 2020, fourth-year International Development student Emily Kerr took part in the experiential learning course, IDEV*3300: Engaging in Development Practice. The course is a prerequisite for students in International Development and aims to help them gain workplace skills that will be useful in the development sector; it was collaboratively developed by CESI and the Guelph Institute of Development Studies. This blog post offers an inside look into Emily’s experiences during the course and her reflections on what the course did for her personally, academically and professionally. 

As a fourth year, I know that experiential learning is extremely important for developing my academic and professional skills. However, with jobs, personal health, and a social life to take care of, sometimes it can be hard to get involved in these opportunities during your undergraduate degree. Luckily for me, IDEV*3300 is built into my degree in International Development. IDEV*3300 provided my class with an opportunity to engage with CUSO International with their branch organizations in Colombia. Over twelve weeks, we completed a research report analyzing gender-based violence in Colombia and defining related policy and/or practice options to help combat it. The main purpose of the course is to teach IDEV students how to engage with development practitioners in the real world and equip students with the necessary skills for successful engagement.  

In the early stages of the project, we spent a lot of class time meeting with our partner and getting to know our beneficiary's values and goals. We then had to begin our two-part research project, which consisted of a thorough literature review and three in-person consultations. The end of the course brought the presentation of our report at our end-of-semester knowledge mobilization event that invited both our community partners and staff at CESI and CSAHS. Despite the challenges we faced, we were still able to complete our report and present our research findings at our year-end conference smoothly and with confidence. 

There was no shortage of challenges during this course, especially given that the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada smack dab in the middle of the semester. I, along with thousands of other students, have had to adjust to the awkward and stressful reality of an online learning environment over the past year. However, this specific course had some unique challenges associated with it, many of which were compounded further once we began learning online.  

Students usually shudder at the thought of doing group work (at least I do). So you can imagine how our class must have felt when we learned that we would be working as a group of eight through the entire semester. We all had extremely different schedules, so finding time to organize team meetings and consultation sessions was not easy. Then, COVID-19 happened, and new problems began popping up. Although none of us were busy anymore, everyone was dealing with the physical and mental consequences of social distancing and isolation. Preparing for our live, in-class conference was no easier than before, and none of our group members even knew how to share our screens at this point. Adapting to these changes weren’t easy, but I was able to use my time management and leadership skills to help keep the team organized and on track.

Although being challenging, the semester was also characterized by personal growth and professional development. I’ve developed technical skills, like analyzing qualitative data and infographic design, and soft skills, such as research consultation techniques or working with a large team. 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, IDEV*3300 has been extremely beneficial. It has allowed me to learn real-life skills in a hands-on environment, which I may not otherwise have had access to in a different degree. 

So, what was the best part of the course? It may sound cheesy, but my favourite part of IDEV*3300 was getting to work with such an amazing team and being supported by such an inspiring female mentor. I think that what got our team through the class was our ability to be flexible and adaptive to change and keep a positive attitude amid the challenges we faced. The instructor, Samantha Blostein, was also an excellent mentor who was committed to fostering learning excellence in her students.

Looking back at everything that happened that semester, I could not be more proud of what my team and I accomplished. I was surprised at how well-done our paper was, and how dedicated my whole team was to finish the semester off strong despite massive setbacks. This is the first course I’ve done where I feel like I took my learning and put it to use outside the classroom. It made me so happy to know that our reports were going into the hands of community stakeholders in Colombia.  

Emily is a fourth-year student in the International Development program, specializing in Political Economy and Administrative Change and minoring in History. At CESI, Emily is a Communications Assistant. Outside of academics, they are the president and co-founder of JAYU x Guelph, the Guelph chapter of an organization that uses art to advocate for human rights. She is also an executive member of the International Development Society and works as a Peer Helper within the International Development program. 

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