Community Partnerships and the Classroom: A Rough Guide

My first foray into the world of community based and experiential learning (CBEL) was waaaaay back in the day, when I was myself an eager young student.  In the 3rd year of my undergraduate career I took a course on religious ethics that helped fulfill one of my major requirements (it was also one of the few courses that fit my schedule in terms of also trying to balance random jobs—see more on that below).  The professor gave us a choice of writing (yet another) final paper or volunteering with a local organization that related to course themes in some way.  Exhausted by the idea of writing yet another term paper and desperately seeking some kind of professional experience beyond my current array of part time jobs (selling men’s clothing at the local mall, cocktail waitress at a sports bar, and appraising diamonds in Toronto’s diamond district—I kid you not) I approached the professor about the latter.  He took the time to ask me about my interests (international politics, I said) and I was placed with a local  NGO, Kairos Canada.

This placement would completely change my life. My work there and the advice of my colleagues directly led me to the career I find myself in today.  It was a moment in my life where I first found ‘my people’ and saw others doing the kinds of work I thought I wanted to do.  I could suddenly articulate more clearly the professional activities I wanted to be involved in.  I could suddenly see how I could tangibly use what I was learning in class. Importantly, working alongside them gave me confidence to pursue a career in this field, confidence that no number of A+ papers could have ever provided.

Perhaps because of this life changing personal experience (or perhaps because I am now a wee bit tired of being on the receiving end of term papers as a professor), I am constantly seeking out opportunities for my students to engage in CBEL as part of my courses.  During my time at Manchester, I brought my MA students into a partnership with a local council and an NGO –with my students mentoring middle- school students on a unique Model United Nations program.  Since joining UBC, I’ve placed students with a range of organizations, including Amnesty International, BC Council for International Cooperation, Canadian International Council and the Museum of Vancouver.  I’ve been helped tremendously along the way by UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning.

Needless to say, I have a lot I could write about here—and please feel free to email me with any questions for more detail about any of the points below.  My main take home point is that I see many of my students who take part in these projects have similarly transformative experiences to what I describe above.  If anyone reading this has ever considered dipping their toes into CBEL, my advice would be to dive in—the projects I’ve facilitated for my students continue to motivate me as a scholar and, I believe, contribute to building small but important links between the public university and the communities in which we work.

Jen’s Rough Guide

Choosing and approaching organizations: This can be the hardest part—particularly if you live in a city where your ‘industry’ isn’t very active. Vancouver is a lot of things, but a hub of ‘traditional’ peacebuilding organizations it is not.   I’ve had to get creative in thinking about how local partners relate to my International Relations courses.  In nearly all cases I (or my helpful friends at CCEL) have started by sending an email with a short blurb about what I’m looking for (having students volunteer with them for approx 30 hours a term and complete some concrete task for the partner) and some very general aims of my course in terms of learning goals/themes of the course.  Usually this is followed up by having a coffee with organizations that do respond.  It is generally the organization themselves who identify links I hadn’t even considered and suggest a specific project for the students to work on.  Whilst of course our students are meant to learn from this partnership, it is equally if not more important that the organizations really gain something useful by hosting our students.

Select your students: In all my courses, with one exception, CBEL has been an optional component and I personally feel this is better.  Not all students will desire such an opportunity and organizations should not be burdened with unmotivated students who find such a project a ‘chore’ rather than an opportunity.   An exception to this might be where it is well known that CBEL is a required part of the course and indeed is the reason students have selected the course.

Depending on interest and spaces available, I have had to resort to having students formally apply for these placements in my courses.  A one page CV as well as a short (300 word) statement of interest is the procedure I have normally gone with.  Whilst I do consider a student’s previous work experience or volunteering as an asset, I would encourage you to not make this a requirement or even grant it too much weight.  I had a student a couple years ago tell me they had considered applying but knew there were loads of other students who had WAY more relevant experience then him, so he felt it was pointless.   He was highly motivated, intelligent and empathetic—perfect for the placements, but had ruled himself out.

A reminder that many of the internships and relevant volunteer experiences our students have are not available to all—particularly students (like myself, many moons ago) who have to work multiple jobs to help pay for university or have caring duties, and for whom unpaid positions are simply not possible.  For this reason, I give a lot of weighting to thoughtful reflections on students’ motivations for applying for the placement.

As a side note to give you a totally unscientific sense of demand for placements–  in the two political science courses I  where I have offered CBEL as an option, I have had about 1/3 of my students apply.

Manage expectations (of everyone): Your students may have visions of seeing through a groundbreaking project from start to finish in a 13-week term.  Your partner may have visions of your skilled-but-still-learning-undergraduates finally being able to produce that 50 page, fully referenced research and evaluation report on a project that they’ve been unable to produce over the past year due to limited resources (also in 13 weeks).  You as a professor may have visions of everyone in the group getting along fabulously on this amazing project that you’ve helped facilitate—with both the students and the organization working in tandem seamlessly to create a truly transformative experience for all.

None of these are likely to happen.    Be realistic with the partner about the skill level of your students and the time they will have to commit to the project.  Be honest with your students about the very small piece of the puzzle they will contribute to during the term, and be clear to them about the limited resources the organization might have and the narrow scope of the project.  They may not be working side by side with staff and might often be working independently. The work might not be glamorous (but it is still important).  For yourself—be prepared for the usual group dynamics and occasional concerns over unmet expectations from all sides.  These projects can be transformative but they are, like everything, never completely smooth sailing.

Deciding on Assessment: I have almost exclusively assessed students who participate in these projects via a reflective writing assignment of some type.   I usually start with looking at the learning objectives I set for the class (listed in my syllabus) and create prompts around these.  This usually results in a quite general prompt that requires the students to link specific experiences from their placement to specific concepts, theories or debates from the course.  The helpful folks at UBCs CCEL directed me to the DEAL model of reflective writing, and I’ve found this very useful in terms of helping me articulate what I expect from students and giving them models to review for what is often (for them) a very different form of writing.

If you are having TAs mark reflective writing for the first time, it is incredibly important that you provide them with further advice and training. I’ve had TAs in the past struggle, tending to approach these pieces as mini-essays, impacting both the grade and feedback provided.

Where appropriate, I have also assessed and graded the reports/presentations produced by students for organizations—again, clear rubrics are needed for these as generally partners are not looking for a traditional undergraduate research paper.

Try to build lasting partnerships (do as I say, not as I do): One thing I have not been successful in, in my current job, is developing longer term, more sustainable partnerships. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but it is my one main regret in relation to my CBEL work.  My experiences in Manchester where I worked with one organization for multiple years was, I feel, a richer experience for all involved as we improved on the partnership with each passing year.  Importantly, because many local organizations are already overstretched, bringing in new actors (students and us as instructors) can be disruptive and increase their workload in a multitude of ways.  A longer term more sustainable partnership, if well designed and based on the principle of reciprocity should, in theory, be more beneficial to partners as they can come to rely on a steady stream of well-prepared students to do specific parts of their work, without having to reinvent the wheel on an annual basis.

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