Getting involved in their community and learning their second official language

Posted on Friday, April 8, 2016

Laura Ambrosio

The Community Service Learning (CSL) program has been offered on campus for 10 years now. Laura Ambrosio, an FLS instructor at the Official Languages and Bilingualism Institute (OLBI), has been a champion of the program since its early days. “I was lucky to have been introduced to CSL by a professor in the Department of History, Jeff Keshen, and now I offer it to my students.”

During the 2015-2016 academic year, a total of 44 students in her five FLS courses decided to do a community service placement for part of their marks. Some students earned a grade this way for the written or oral communication component while others earned one for the French vocabulary or advanced spoken and written comprehension component. Ambrosio’s goal is to give students a chance to put the French language skills they’ve acquired to use out in the real world. “Learning by doing is a way for students to acquire knowledge in ways that aren’t strictly theoretical,” she says. “It also gives students a taste of what it’s actually like in the workplace. It provides some students with an opportunity to decide whether they’re on the right track for their career choices…and to make changes if they aren’t. It lets others experience something new. I really think it’s important for students to get work experience while they’re in university. And CSL, a program run by the Michaëlle-Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement, is one way for them to do this.”

The placements offered in Ambrosio’s classes vary greatly. They can involve working with one of the University’s services, such as Community Life, where students help with some of the activities offered at Carrefour francophone—the hub of Francophone social and community life on campus. Or they can provide students with opportunities to speak French through placements at Saint-Vincent Hospital, in Bruyère’s complex continuing care unit or with schools and community centres in the region that provide young students with homework help in French. The Centre is always looking for community partners that serve the region’s French-speaking population who might consider bringing student volunteers on board. These students are motivated and can lend an extra hand with a variety of tasks, depending on their skill level.

Thanks to the support received by the Centre and the many successful community partnerships over the past 10 years, the University of Ottawa recently approved the creation of two second-language courses where students will be graded entirely on their involvement in a community-based learning activity. This is a brand new concept but also an exciting challenge. The first of these courses, an English second language course developed by Ambrosio and colleague Nikolay Slavkov, a language professor at OLBI, will be offered in the Fall 2016 session. The equivalent French second language course will be ready for the Fall 2017 session. In the meantime, students can still choose to do a community service learning activity for a portion of their grade. Ambrosio wants to continue improving her own courses in order to provide students with the best experience possible. These new CSL-only courses are the next step in enriching the experience for students. And for Ambrosio, it involves developing a deeper understanding of her students. “I want to better understand why students develop a passion for engagement and how we can turn this passion into learning opportunities,” she says with a smile.

“It’s one of the ways professors and instructors can better focus their teaching objectives and allows them to reassess their objectives in light of the students’ own experiences,” says Ambrosio. “They also get to know their students much better,” she says. “Part of what students have to do during a CSL placement is reflect on their experience. And this reflection helps the professors and instructors get to know their students on a more personal level. I have been amazed by the generosity shown by students, which continues to inspire me,” says Ambrosio. 

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