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Margin Notes

Reflections on community-university engagement

Founding director of UBC’s Learning Exchange looks at lessons learned from reaching out to Canada’s poorest urban neighbourhood.


One of the articles in my career for which I’m most proud begins: “On a grey Saturday morning, 23 students assemble at the offices of the University of British Columbia’s Learning Exchange, a community outreach centre in the heart of Vancouver’s seediest neighbourhood, the notorious Downtown Eastside. A local resident asleep in the doorway underscores the fact that this is a world far-removed – literally and figuratively – from UBC’s leafy, affluent main suburban campus. That’s part of the idea. …”

The article, “Educating Citizen Jane” (PDF), published in the February 2004 print edition of University Affairs, introduces readers to the Learning Exchange’s Trek Volunteer Program, which provides UBC students the opportunity to offer their services in schools, non-profit organizations and community centres in the inner city. Its aim is to give students “real-life experience in the community while raising their awareness of health, social, economic and political issues.”

The Trek program also formed the foundation of UBC’s commitment to a pedagogical model that was still, at the time, not common on Canadian campuses: community service learning, or CSL. This model combines students’ community volunteer activities with their academic coursework, and aims to instill in them a sense of citizenship and civic engagement.

The article, which looked at several CSL initiatives on Canadian campuses, evidently struck a chord. When I revisited the topic of CSL five years later, the then head of the Canadian Alliance for Community Service-Learning, Larry Gemmel, referred to my original article as the “foundational article” that helped to jump-start the CSL movement in Canada. Prompted in part by the article, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation shortly after created a community service learning initiative that provided up to $1 million to each of 10 CSL projects at Canadian universities.

I bring all this up because the original article also introduced me to Margo Fryer, the founding director of UBC’s Learning Exchange. Dr. Fryer later wrote a multi-part blog on community-university engagement for University Affairs, called Taking the Plunge.

Community engagement is a hot topic within the postsecondary education system in Canada, and CSL in particular fits nicely within the spectrum of experiential-learning activities that are now widely recognized to foster student engagement and success. Dr. Fryer has had a front-row seat to much of this development and she has done us all a great favour in collecting these experiences and reflections in a new website that she has put together called “Inside or Outside: Learning on the Edge.” The website gives an insider’s look at the history of the Learning Exchange, lessons learned, and much more.

She explained in an email to me: “I’m hoping the material will be interesting and useful to several audiences, including university faculty and staff who are building CSL or other programs to engage with communities, young people who want to make a difference in the world, people from community organizations who are wondering how partnerships with universities can work, and people who want to know more about the Downtown Eastside or poverty and marginalization generally.”

I have wondered recently where we’re at currently with CSL initiatives on Canadian campuses. I know several of the programs I highlighted in the earlier articles are still running, even though the McConnell funding ended long ago. In 2012, the McConnell Foundation also helped to launch the inaugural Community Service Learning Awards, given out that year to five deserving programs. However, I don’t see any evidence that these awards were repeated in subsequent years.

On the conference front, Carleton University is hosting what’s called the C2U Expo from May 26 to 29, which focuses on community-campus partnerships, community based research and community service-learning. (As an aside, we published a story on the “new credo” of community-engaged scholarship in 2013.) There is also a call for submissions to the 2016 national conference for Community Service Learning and Community Engagement being held in May of next year at Mount Royal University (more on the conference can be found here).

Do you have an update on your campus’s CSL activities? We’d like to hear about them. Please post a comment below.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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