Feb. break different this year
By Paul Bidwell
For the past 39 years, I’ve looked forward to the February “mid-term break” as a chance to catch up on my reading, to finish grading student essays, or briefly to escape the snow and ice of a Saskatchewan winter. This year, however, was different. This year was special.
Along with 25 undergraduate students and several colleagues from Student Services, I participated in an exciting venture, an eye-opening exploration of inner-city Saskatoon. Our pilot project highlighted something new to me — “Community Service Learning.”
Some Canadian universities — Guelph, St. Francis Xavier, and UBC, among others — have been engaged for several years in connecting student academic learning to a real engagement with community service agencies. This year, our College of Arts and Science joined what is rapidly becoming a significant movement in higher education.
Here’s what happened. Students in various disciplines volunteered to devote their mid-term break — we renamed it “Alternative Reading Week” — to discovering what goes on in the core neighbourhoods of their own city. And they learned by doing. They rolled their sleeves up and worked – dry walling at Habitat for Humanity, helping “kids at risk” to ride unicycles at the Circus Arts project, packaging food at the Saskatoon Food Bank, eating with Aboriginal families at the Friendship Inn, working at the Child Hunger Education Program (CHEP), and learning, always learning, about the harsh realities of life for the less fortunate on the other side of town.
Those who organized the week crammed in all sorts of exhilarating (and sometimes painful) learning experiences at exotic places such as SCYAP, SWITCH, EGADZ, QUINT, and IICUSP. “Eye-opening” doesn’t begin to describe what we saw and felt: for everyone involved, the week was positively transformative. It changed us. Listen. Here’s a typical sampling of what some of our students said in their post-experience reflective questionnaires:
“This has been the most useful and educational week of my life. I have changed in so many ways.”
“A great experience: I am certain that I will now continue to volunteer.”
“I have discovered my interest in community development and this will inspire my future classes.”
“The week was awakening, inspiring and transforming . . . something every university student should do.”
And for me? I took on this assignment at the request of Associate Dean Tom Steele, and then somehow it became, quite simply, the most rewarding week I’ve ever spent at the University of Saskatchewan. Being with those students as they listened and worked and reflected on their experience was as stimulating as any academic course in which I’ve ever participated. When Dean Jo-Anne Dillon came to congratulate the students and to distribute certificates of involvement, I knew that we had begun something that must not stop here.
And where do we go from here? We build on our success. We create a rigorous 3 c.u. Arts and Science elective so that next year another group of students can learn the joy of connecting their formal education with their community. Moreover, we must continue to encourage professors to incorporate some measure of community service learning into their own courses wherever and whenever it makes good pedagogic sense to do so. I know that elsewhere on campus, in the College of Education, at STM, and in other units, various opportunities for active academic service learning are being assembled. My hope is that within a few years every university student who wishes to do so can incorporate some degree of community service learning into her or his academic program. Now that’s outreach and engagement.
Paul Bidwell is head of the Department of English