That’s Not! What We Do Here

The generative power of utilizing consultation, collaboration and persistence when navigating change at a research-intensive university

By: Stephanie Hayne Beatty – Director, Careers & Experience and Heather Wakely – Team Lead, Experiential Learning at Western University

“This sounds to me suspiciously like neo-liberal corporate thinking.”

When we asked for honest feedback about a newly-developed campus framework for experiential learning (EL), our students, staff, and faculty didn’t hold back. Recent interest in EL – both from students and the Ontario government—has generated spirited discussion on Western University’s campus (and at many other higher education institutions across the province) about the value, positioning, and best practices for EL.  

At Western, EL is defined as: an approach that educators use to intentionally connect learners with practical experiences that include guided reflection. EL allows learners to: increase and apply disciplinary knowledge, develop transferable skills, clarify interests and values, strengthen career engagement and employability, and collaborate meaningfully with communities.

The question we needed to answer was clear: how do we make more room for EL at a research-intensive university where there exists some healthy skepticism about its fit? For us, the answer lay in three key practices: consultation, collaboration, and persistence.

Consultation

In November 2017, Western’s Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) struck a campus-wide taskforce to create a typology of curricular and co-curricular EL activities. While we had the benefit of learning from the University of Victoria and Brock University, who were some of the first institutions in Canada to develop their own institutional typologies, it was important that we grapple with questions that mattered most to us as an institution. We asked:

  • Are all lab courses, by their very nature, considered experiential learning? What about music performance courses?
  • What if the EL component takes place entirely within the classroom, and doesn’t extend to industry or community?
  • Should the EL component represent a minimum percentage of the students’ grade in order to count?

To explore the answers to these questions, the taskforce met regularly and facilitated 20 months of extensive consultation with the campus community – by online survey, Faculty/department meetings, students’ council meetings, and Town Halls. In June 2019, when the typology was passed by Senate, we were thrilled. We can’t contend everyone across campus is satisfied with every category, definition, or comma placement, but the taskforce is satisfied that we heard from a broad spectrum of voices and did our best to represent the interests of those from different disciplines, positions, and viewpoints.

Group of stakeholders reflect upon and celebrate experiential learning at Western University.
Students, staff, faculty, and community partners gather to reflect upon and celebrate EL at Western.

Collaboration

Because Western is a large a complex ecosystem with multiple nodes that a student interfaces with, collaboration is essential to all of our work in Student Affairs – from welcoming new students during Orientation Week to preparing them for life and career beyond graduation. Over the last few years, we have created several mechanisms through which meaningful collaboration on EL activities can occur: an employer-facing marketing campaign (hirewesternu), a Work Integrated Learning working group, and a campus-wide employer information tracking system. On your campuses, you are not strangers to this type of collaborative work.  As Student Affairs professionals, we collaborate across our institutions through working groups, communities of practice, marketing campaigns, and the use of shared systems. It takes big effort, but with this effort comes big rewards. We can co-create policies, processes, and programs that are more beneficial for ALL students, allowing them to better navigate the complex ecosystems of our institutions .

When the Ontario government invested in colleges and universities through its 2018 Career Ready Funds, we anticipated a different type of collaboration was needed in order to maximize the impact of EL on Western’s campus. We focused on developing new programs in areas where students did not historically have access to EL: a paid, credit-bearing internship program for students in Liberal Arts Faculties, and a paid, supervisor-approved internship program for students in research-based graduate programs. Like so many of you who are supporting student success, we collaborated to begin to address some of the inherent barriers to participating in EL – for first generation students, students with disabilities, and Indigenous students, among others.

One of the most inspiring collaborations to emerge from Western’s Career Ready project was a partnership between Impact Experience, the Indigenous Student Centre and Amizade, a long-standing international community partner. In May 2019, five indigenous students and two campus leaders traveled to Pine Ridge, South Dakota to learn from Elders who are dedicated to a sustainable future for the health and well-being of the Oglala Lakota people. We were able to provide financial support to the student participants, who noted the availability of an Indigenous program – where they could openly share their histories and experiences – was deeply valued.

Western students and team leaders participate in a week-long EL opportunity with a community partner in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, USA.
Western students and team leaders participate in a week-long EL opportunity with a community partner in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, USA.

Persistence

For many years, EL has existed in various places and program at Western, but in the absence of a collective vision or voice. Many staff and faculty have dedicated years, and sometimes careers, to ensuring students can access high-quality internships, practicums, field experiences, and community engaged learning courses. They have advocated for resources, done the difficult task of partnership building, and defended their work against those who believe hands-on learning has no place in the academy. They are our passionate colleagues and fiercest allies – and their persistence has paid off.

As we kicked off the 2019-20 academic year, we are excited about many of the recent developments in our collective EL story. We have reorganized a new department called Careers & Experience, whose vision is for all Western graduates to have the skills and confidence to thoughtfully engage in communities, and build a meaningful life and career. We launched a user-focused, one-stop website for EL. We have worked closely with our Recruitment Office to thoughtfully engage with prospective students about the various ways to gain career experience. Finally, we have started a multi-year research project that will investigate the skills, competencies, and imagined futures of students who participate in internship versus community engaged learning, with the goal of better understanding the types of skills students develop across the variety of EL opportunities that we support and nurture at Western with our community partners.

The Path Forward

Do we have it all figured out? If we did, we’d tell you! What we can share are some critical lessons that continue to shape the way we think about what’s next for EL at Western:

  1. Build it and…you still need to convince them to come. When we launched internship programs in Liberal Arts, and posted 400+ paid internship opportunities, we thought students would come flocking and they didn’t. But, it’s not their fault.  Most students in these faculties have not historically had access to paid internships and weren’t actively planning to participate.  We are shifting a culture and that takes time.
  2. Find the common denominator. Working across disciplines, perspectives, and experiences, it can be difficult to reach consensus. When you peel back the layers, there is usually something everyone can agree on. Focus on that and build from there.
  3. Experiential Learning is a wellness issue. When students engage in EL they deepen their understanding, form connections, and develop confidence in their learning and their futures.  Our focus is on student thriving and we know that access to EL is a critical factor to student success.

We would love to hear about your own experiences and the lessons learned at your institutions. Please take a moment and leave a comment. Or feel free to tweet directly @westernuSE