Change expands horizons for staffers

As two Western staff members prepare for their Leave for Change service excursions, two others are still reflecting on their experiences with the Western International-led program from the past year.

“With how many international students I have in my department, I thought, if I did something like (Leave for Change), I’d get to see what it’s like for them to come over and be completely overwhelmed and lost. I’d get a chance to be in their shoes,” said Sylvia Kontra, Graduate Assistant in Modern Languages and Literature, who spent three weeks last year at the Hanoi Open University in Vietnam.

Instituted nearly four years ago, Leave for Change looks to build capacity with staff working as volunteers in developing countries, training locals in their fields of expertise. Volunteers don’t work as employees but instead as advisors to local staff, supporting lasting change.

In Hanoi, Kontra helped develop initiatives to engage the student body, which university administrators had found challenging after the campus expanded across the city, inhabiting numerous business spaces off of the central campus.

“I saw they were in rented space. They kept telling me, ‘This isn’t our school.’ They’ve already been there a couple years, and they had no idea how much longer they would be there. In that space, there were still posters from the business that used to rent it. Classroom walls were all blank,” Kontra said.

“The first thing you need to do is develop an identity. Why would the students identify with the university if (the university) isn’t identifying itself?”

Kontra worked with the student body to establish an identity within their physical space by putting up posters of school programs and initiatives. She came up with ideas to unite the student body and give them a voice.

She quickly realized the primary means of communication for staff, faculty and students was Facebook. So, she organized passive-engagement activities like photo contests on the site to connect students to one another, the space and community around them. After her three weeks were up, she offered suggestions for how to sustain momentum in student engagement via social media and community involvement.

“My big takeaway was communication. Even though we think we communicate well, there’s always another way. I was sending emails and not getting responses, and I was stuck in the ideas I brought with me. It took a few days to understand the students were active, but it was on Facebook, and I had to adapt to that,” Kontra noted.

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For Lori Dengler, a Postgraduate Education Coordinator in the Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Medicine within the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, her journey to Tra Vinh, Vietnam, was a similarly rewarding experience.

Dengler worked as a Career Development Advisor at the Tra Vinh University Teaching and Learning Centre, creating workshops for anesthesiology and nursing students, aiming to teach soft skills such as communication and change management. She was tasked with creating sustainable training workshops and was delighted at how eager students were and how much they wanted interactive programming.

“I found out a lot about myself. I’m far more resilient, independent and adaptable. That’s the ultimate reward of the experience; you’re giving and teaching but you’re also learning. As much as I gave, I got back so much more as far as growing as a person.”

Nicole Dorssers, Schulich’s Special Events & Alumni Engagement Officer, was inspired by Dengler and is one of this year’s Leave for Change participants, heading to Tanzania in January to work with a not-for-profit organization that aims to support local farmers.

“I’ve had international exposure and every time I explore a new culture, or get to see a different way of doing things, I take it and I apply it. I am looking forward to rejuvenating my passion for what I do by doing something new,” Dorssers said.

Joining her, as one of this year’s participants, will be Teri Hearn, Manager of Graduate Admissions in the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, who is heading to Malawi in August.

“I don’t have a lot of international experience. Years ago, I travelled to Thailand to adopt my daughter. Without that experience, I don’t think I would be brave enough to do this,” she said.

“It’s always been in the back of my mind that because we adopted internationally, we are an international family. Instilling in my daughter an appreciation for the world is really important. I hope this inspires her when she’s in high school or university and there are opportunities to do exchanges to take advantage of those,” she continued.

“I work with a lot of international students in Graduate Studies. Having an appreciation for what it’s like for students to leave their home country and come here to study – I can get a taste of that when I go away on my own and I have to learn a new culture and transit system, and a workplace culture. That kind of understanding will provide me better ideas for supports students might need.”