The one thing Stephanie Hayne Beatty hears most often from students enrolled in a Community Engaged Learning (CEL) course is the class helps “learning come to life.”
“The whole idea is students are able to take their classroom knowledge into the community, and take that community experience and apply it back into the classroom,” said Hayne Beatty, Associate Director (Experiential Learning) with the Student Success Centre (SSC).
But the benefits of, and praise for, the program – run by the SSC – extend beyond The Gates, she added. Last week, CEL was recognized with a 2017 Pillar Community Innovation Award in the category of Community Impact.
The program integrates community service with a specific course curriculum. It aims to help students strengthen their sense of civic responsibility and understanding of social justice, while giving them hands-on experiences to connect what they learn in the classroom to what happens outside it. There are nearly 50 CEL courses offered across each faculty, and the number continues to grow.
Faculty members approach the SSC with a course they are either teaching, or hoping to teach, in partnership with a community organization. SSC aligns the course outcomes with a need identified by partners in the community. For credit, students complete a placement or project defined by the community organization.
“We all know there are divides between the university and the community. It doesn’t always seem as if we are the most friendly, or the most inviting, or the most collaborative place. What this (program) has done has really changed that perception. It shows people at Western, and faculty in particular, want to work with the community and see what value community organizations add to student learning,” Hayne Beatty said.
“We consider our community partners true partners in education – they are teaching our students in the community as much as we are teaching them in the classroom. And this award recognizes that. The community has seen demonstrated, positive benefits.”
Hayne Beatty’s go-to example of the potential collaboration and impact the program offers to the broader community is a Psychology course, Addictions: Theory and Practice, taught by Riley Hinson. Students from this course have partnered with treatment and health-care facilities in the community, working on projects such as identifying why clients of these facilities drop off long waitlists. Students can do studies, literature reviews and comparative reports to identify what can be done to address the challenge and what other communities are doing with similar organizations.
While the CEL course is set up as a two-way knowledge exchange, the side benefits of the program must not be ignored, Hayne Beatty added. A former student in the Addictions course praised the class for many things, but primarily for helping her gain a “greater sense of empathy,” she said.
“Sometimes we overemphasize the professional skills students get from these experiences. We forget about the personal growth students experience and this is really valuable. That student said, ‘Do you want to graduate students with more knowledge or students who are better human beings?’ And I thought, what an amazing way to put it. She felt it had done that for her.”
Political Science professor Dan Bousfield, who teaches multiple CEL courses, including International Law, Canada/U.S. Relations and Social Movements & Interest Groups, echoed Hayne Beatty, noting he likes to incorporate CEL options – without making them mandatory – in his classes. The students who opt in and choose to work in the community for credit demonstrate personal and professional growth when their placements and projects are completed, he said.
“They do a reflective assignment and you can see them rethinking, an ability to see what they thought they knew, but now have a better understanding of, of themselves and what they want to do or don’t want to do,” Bousfield said.
“It’s all that reflection and engagement. It gives them a sense of accomplishment and idea they are doing more than just classwork. It makes them better engaged in the community. With some things, I don’t think the classroom can teach you as much as doing it can teach you; it rounds out the learning.”
Some of his students continued to be involved with the partner organizations after the course was completed, and a couple have even landed employment opportunities with those they worked with.
As for the Pillar award, Hayne Beatty said it is a recognition of all involved in CEL and the community at large. She hopes to see the program grow to include more graduate courses and interdisciplinary partnerships.
“This recognition is all of ours. You’ve all taken a chance on our students at one point in time and contributed to their learning. It is a win-win. The learning is reciprocal and we hope those courses and projects add up over the course of time to the broader change in the community.”