By Laura McCaffrey
Learning Through Community Engagement
Over the past several years, experiential education has been on the rise at Carleton University—and for good reason. It has been proven to elevate students’ learning by linking theory to practice, improving memory retention and assisting in the development of learning- and work-related skills. In many cases, it also integrates community engagement, thus aligning with Carleton’s commitment to working with others to do good in the world.
‘Community Engaged Sociology’ is one of many experiential learning courses available at Carleton—and it’s making a huge impact on Carleton students and the Ottawa community.
The course was developed in 2013 by Dr. Aaron Doyle, chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, with support from Dr. Deborah Conners.
“At the time, I was Aaron’s research assistant (RA). I worked on the design of the course with him as an RA, and then I was a teaching assistant in the first term. I’ve been teaching the course ever since,” recalls Conners. “Aaron is a big proponent of empowering students to drive social change in their communities and to do good through their schoolwork.”
The premise of the course is simple, but effective: students are broken into three teams and each team works directly with a pre-selected community organization to address actual social and advocacy issues faced by that organization. There are three team leads—two teaching assistants and Dr. Conners—who are each assigned to a group to provide guidance to the students as they carry out their projects.
A large part of what has made the course so successful over the past five years are the reciprocal relationships and mutual benefits to the students, the participating organizations and the populations that they serve.
“With the organizations, our goal is to give them more than they give [to us],” explains Conners. “The thing that makes a difference is having a conversation about their needs. We have to design an objective with the organization that is not just something they’re interested in, but something they actually need and that they haven’t been able to achieve on their own with their current resources.”
In the case of Discovery University, an organization that partners with post-secondary institutions to offer courses to precariously housed individuals, the institutional need was to increase the number of people under 30 accessing their courses. Together, the organization and the students settled on a goal of engaging 4 new registrants under 30 during the semester.
For the Ottawa Men’s Refuge (OMR), which aims to support male victims of domestic violence, the challenge was broader in scope. As a newly established organization, the OMR had limited resources and experience; they were seeking guidance to help them deliver support groups to male victims.
“We wanted to connect with the other Social Service Providers in Ottawa that are doing important work on issues such as domestic abuse, substance abuse and violence against women, and that have decades of experience and knowledge under their belts,” said Jan van Heuzen, a member of the ORM board.
In response to ORM’s objective, the students organized a consultation session with social service providers in Ottawa who provide similar services to women.
“OMR gained the opportunity to speak with professionals who have provided victim support for decades, and we even received offers to share resources,” van Heuzen recalled. “Our project goals were met, and we are now better prepared to run our victim support group.”
By designing projects that align with the organizations’ goals, the students are able to drive positive outcomes and effect change in the communities and populations that the organizations support.
During the fall 2018 semester, the class partnered with Immigrant Women Services Ottawa (IWSO), which assists immigrant women to integrate into a new society and rebuild from experiences of violence. The students working with IWSO planned a family fun fair in November 2018, with the goal of providing public education to prevent violence against women.
“We wanted to have an event that could engage whole families,” says Conners. “We wanted to reach not only women, but men—the women’s partners—to educate them on the laws and expectations about the treatment of women in Canada. It was a great opportunity to do some prevention work and to make a difference in the lives of these women.”
The students, for their part, have the benefit of learning in an experiential environment and solving real-life problems. “It’s going to touch you in a deeper way. This isn’t textbook. These are real people and real issues,” one student mused.
“There are four proven outcomes from experiential learning: enhanced sense of self, ability to relate to others, ability to be a better citizen and increased capacity for job skills,” explains Conners. “So not only are the students gaining some really practical skills that will help them in employment searches and in their future jobs, they’re actually experiencing being a force for good. They see their own power to change the world and they gain tangible experience on how to do just that. [The course] is about giving sociology students the opportunity to take action and to experience being Here for Good.”