Professor Nérée St-Amand has been a full professor at the School of Social Work in the Faculty of Social Sciences since 1990, and for years he has impressed upon his students the importance of a play-on- words, albeit a French one. He starts his courses by pointing out how the word “apprentissage”, French for learning-by-doing, is really two words in one, “appren” from the word for learning, and “tissage”, the word for weaving. In other words, he wants his students to weave or craft their own learning experience, namely by engaging with their community.
As a co-founder of the School of Social Work at the University of Ottawa, Professor St-Amand was also a pioneer in integrating community engagement into his courses, whether by working with community partners or with individuals on the fringes of society. From the beginning, his intentions were clear: “The University should never cut itself off from the problems and concerns of everyday people. It must play an active role in the community.” Following a conference on experiential learning in Paris, the University of Ottawa first officially integrated community-based learning into a course in the social work program and, thanks to Professor Jeff Keshen, into the history program.
It was Professor St-Amand who initially recruited community partners to complement academic training, and who first paired students with these organizations, taking care not to compete with longer placements organized by the School. He knew the partners, such as the Patro and St. Joe’s Women’s Centre, and he liaised with them to provide students with opportunities to support their initiatives. This also led him to better understand the area’s community resources, which he felt was important given his role as a professor and representative of the University. He smiles when he describes the follow-up measures he undertook, alone, without any external help except for volunteers from his courses, to coordinate efforts between the community partners and the students. Organizations would call him, saying, “Professor, this student didn’t show up for the interview!” When he first started, community service learning consisted of a three-hour stint with an organization and a report linking the experience to the material taught in class. As he realized the impact of this field training on learning, he bumped up the external component of the course to six hours, and then increased it again, until it reached its current model, which requires a 30-hour investment from students during the term. “Gradually, people came to believe in the project. Obviously, I am very happy: I never thought that it would turn out the way it did, and that it would grow to take on a life of its own.” In 2010, the Michaele Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement took over coordination of the program, now formally known as “Community Service Learning” or CSL, for the departments wishing to include it in their courses, in addition to maintaining partnerships for extra-curricular student volunteering. Over two decades after it was first adopted at uOttawa, CSL is now offered in 147 courses spanning 7 faculties. The School of Social Work alone counts nine courses that offer a CSL component.
Professor St-Amand has kept copies of the posters and journals created by his students, some of whom are now masters’ students while others have joined the workforce; these creations show how the students’ thinking evolved during their community learning experience. He says he is always touched by their reflections and analyses on poverty and its socio-economic issues, such as policies that respond to marginalized individuals versus those that maintain the status quo. This transcends the theories learned in class because “learning does not fall from the sky or emanate from the professor: it is crafted as the student becomes aware of both the complexity of the issues and the potential of individuals.” With regard to what students and professors gain from CSL, Professor St-Amand is unequivocal: “It changes people, that’s what it does. I realized that the best way for me to understand people is by reading the journals– in them, (the students) can say what they dare not say in class. It still affects me. (…) And afterwards, what kind of society does it create? A society that thinks about poverty, the environment, social inequality, racial inequality, et cetera.”
So what role does Professor St-Amand see for CSL today? Aside from the ongoing need to conduct research to demonstrate the relevance of the program and to confirm its impact, the professor believes that CSL is even more relevant for today’s students, who live in a digital age, and that every discipline would be well-served by incorporating a CSL component. “University teaching must be linked to people, whether it’s Franco Ontarians, women living in poverty, visible minorities, LGBTQ individuals, or others. This is the world students must deal with, regardless of their profession, whether they study law, nursing or social work.” Although Professor St-Amand may have symbolically passed the torch to the next generation as he prepares to enjoy a well-deserved retirement, he remains steadfast in his belief that it would be impossible for him to teach any concept that did not relate to the community. The walls of the School of Social Work are still adorned by several CSL posters crafted by his students over the years, posters that reflect this singular approach to learning and his pride in having contributed to it.
The Centre would like to thank Professor Nérée St-Amand for having championed experiential learning and for establishing the basis for what is now the CSL program at the University of Ottawa. In doing so, he has truly bridged the gap between learning about and crafting a better society in the 21st century.