"...Such a meaningful part of my university experience": Two Students' Reflections on Their Time at the Research Shop
Community-engaged research bridges the gap between community and university and can have significant benefits for community partners and students alike. Recent research by Karen Nelson, Kendra Schnarr and Dr. Elizabeth Jackson examined a range of these benefits (and some challenges) through a case study of the impacts of CESI’s Research Shop. In this study, students reported that working at the Research Shop strengthened their professional and academic skills, exposed them to interdisciplinary learning, and allowed them to form connections on and off campus. Students also reported a few challenges while working at the Research Shop, such as balancing their research roles with their academic and personal responsibilities or facing communication barriers with local partners. To find out more about these benefits and challenges, we sat down with two U of G students and former Research Shop managers, Jessica and Patricia, to hear more about their time at CESI.
When Jessica and Patricia joined the Research Shop, neither of them expected it to turn into a four-year-long experience that would have a significant impact on their personal and professional development.
Jessica, a Ph.D. student in Geography at the University of Guelph, stumbled upon a position within CESI by chance, as she was looking for part-time employment to support her studies. She was attracted by the opportunity that CESI provided to engage with partners in the community and link them with academia. The community-engagement aspect also attracted Patricia, an MSc student in Rural Planning and Development, who had been following CESI for a while and looking for an opportunity to get involved.
Jessica and Patricia began their journey at CESI as research assistants within the Research Shop, a program area within CESI that trains graduate students to work with local and regional organizations to carry out high-impact research. After undergoing training and undertaking several projects as research assistants, they were promoted to project managers. Since then, both Jessica and Patricia have been involved in a wide range of projects in terms of size and subject, on everything from horticulture therapy to a campus fresh food market.
Some of their most valuable experiences at the Research Shop have involved the networks they have formed with community partners, many of whom they remained in touch with long after the project was completed. For example, Patricia was recently invited to attend the graduation of students she worked with during CESI’s Campus Friends project, as she kept in touch with the project coordinator. “To have the opportunity to work with them and watch them graduate was such a special moment, and for them to remember me was also very special,” she said. Both students also consider the relationships they have formed with their colleagues at CESI, and especially Karen, the Research Shop manager, as extremely valuable aspects of their experience. As Jessica stated, “Karen goes above and beyond to make sure our well-being is maintained and that we can take time away if we need it.”
Jessica and Patricia have also experienced significant professional development throughout their time at CESI, as they collaborated with community organizations in diverse disciplines. Jessica highlighted that she never expected to have such a layered work experience while completing her Ph.D., providing her with many valuable skills to draw on while she builds her career. “When I initially began working as project manager, I found it exciting but also very nerve-wracking to be leading meetings with community partners; however, CESI gave me the unique opportunity to grow into that role and develop those skills,” said Jessica.
Similarly, Patricia will continue to reflect on her experiences at CESI as she continues her journey away from the University of Guelph. “CESI gave me that practical, hands-on experience that I may not have gotten in the classroom, and the chance to grow as I went along, which is one of the biggest things I will carry with me into my career,” said Patricia.
Their work at CESI has not come without its challenges. For Patricia, transitioning to remote research during the pandemic, such as attempting to build rapport with community partners online, or completing data collection virtually, was especially difficult. Despite this, she became skilled in creating connections with partners, navigating interviews or focus groups, and facilitating panels virtually using online platforms such as Zoom. Her experiences led her to co-create several guides to using Zoom for webinars, which there was not much information on at the time, that others working in community-engaged research could use in the future.
For Jessica, learning to embrace the unknown when working with community partners was an incredibly rewarding but also challenging experience. As she described it, “When you are in academia, you can spend over a year conducting research on the group you will be working with before going into the field; at CESI it is very different because you start working with the community right away, and it is more about learning as you go.” From this experience, she has learned the importance of being patient and open-minded, especially when engaging with individuals with different lived experiences
Jessica and Patricia believe that community-engaged research is essential because, at its core, academia should be connected to the communities they work with and operate within. They also believe that knowledge mobilization, or knowing what the purpose of the research is, who the audience is, and how the research will inform action is another valuable aspect of community-engaged research. “Working at the Research Shop over the years has really been such a meaningful part of my university experience, and I would encourage anyone interested in community-engaged research to become involved,” says Patricia.
Jessica and Patricia’s insights highlight the positive impacts of community-engaged scholarship, and serve as a reminder of the importance of programs such as the Research Shop that provide students with opportunities for co-curricular positions within community-engaged research.
We would like to extend our gratitude to Jessica and Patricia for taking the time to share their experiences at the Research Shop with us. We would also like to thank the broader community of student researchers at CESI for their dedicated work and commitment to deeply principled community-engaged scholarship.