Fischer: Western Serves challenges ‘old story’ of town-gown relations

On Saturday, Sept. 24, more than 300 of Western’s students, staff and faculty will enter into the London community to help advance the mission of 32 non-profit community organizations. Western Serves, an annual day of community service in the London community, has become an integral program that has worked toward strengthening university-community relations since 2007.

The concept of the program, run by The Student Success Centre, is simple yet the effects are far-reaching. Groups embark on the day of community service from the Natural Sciences Building after hearing opening remarks and building momentum to serve through the infectious energy of giving exuded by their peers. Participants are bused to community organizations throughout the city to complete three hours of service in a variety of capacities. Following the service, the team leader leads the group in a facilitated reflection, where assumptions and beliefs are challenged, observations about the community and various groups are made, and plans for engaging more with the community are fostered.

The service projects completed through Western Serves are as diverse as the organizations served.

Projects include planting trees with Reforest London, brainstorming initiatives toward encouraging entrepreneurship with the immigrant population with the Ontario Immigrant Network and helping in a children’s program with the Boys’ and Girls’ Club of London.

This year, community partners showed a strong interest in hosting Western volunteers in service projects. The popularity of the program and the eagerness to have people from Western work for community organizations is a strong testament to the impacts that London nonprofit organizations have seen through the various Community Service Learning (CSL) programs that are in place at Western.

CSL is an innovative teaching tool used increasingly by instructors across the disciplines.

The approach allows members of educational institutions and community organization to work together toward outcomes of mutual benefit. In short, CSL serves to enhance in-class learning through meaningful out-of-classroom experiences while providing a valuable service to the community.

Every year, Western Serves acts as a ‘kick-off’ to Western’s engagement with the London community, and an introduction to the other CSL opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom. Registration for Western Serves fills up within days of it opening. The popularity of the program speaks to the attitudes and behaviours of students, faculty and staff who make up the Western community. Many of them seek opportunities for engagement, fuelled by the desire to create an impact on the London community, beyond the university gates.

Western has received criticism over the years for a perceived lack of tie to the London community. Western Serves works to challenge such notions, and shows London that Western is a rich resource of skills, knowledge and people who want to build meaningful partnerships with organizations and businesses in London.

While Western Serves is an initiative that exists outside the classroom, particular attention must be paid to the expansion of curricular CSL initiatives that use the community as a ‘textbook’ to bring students’ learning to life, while providing community partners with valuable resources to advance the missions of their organizations.

In the 2010-2011 academic year, courses in the faculties of Arts & Humanities, Health Sciences, Women’s Studies and Social Science embedded project-based and placement-based community service experiences into the course curriculum, with the goal of providing meaningful experiential learning opportunities to students and discipline-specific knowledge, skills and expertise to organizations that would not otherwise have these resources available. In 2010-2011, 259 students participated in CSL courses.

CSL has allowed teacher candidates from the Faculty of Education to use service as an avenue for non-traditional career exploration. Future health-care providers work with nonprofit partners to develop solutions for challenges facing seniors in our community.  Students who are learning Spanish are matched up with members of the Hispanic community to practice their language skills while gaining an understanding of the issues that face immigrants in London.

For the 2011-2012 academic year, even more instructors are teaching CSL courses, including science, which highlights the applicability of this educational approach to all academic disciplines.

CSL goes beyond sending an army of volunteers into the community. It provides students with real-life examples of what they learn in lectures, and offers real-life support to community agencies that appreciate the energy and perspective our students bring to their workplace.

CSL also allows Western students to live inside the London community and appreciate what it might be like to call it ‘home’ upon graduation.

For critics, there is always an easy story to tell: Western is an island of academics that interacts infrequently with the rest of the world. The problem is that story is old.

Programs like Western Serves and CSL courses are telling the new story of Western. It is a place that exists in, and is an integral part of, the City of London. And, it is a place where academia and community collaborate each day toward the betterment of both.

 

Anne-Marie Fischer is community service learning coordinator  at The Student Success Centre: Careers, Leadership and Experience. She can be reached at csl@uwo.ca.