How volunteering can help you grow: Introducing Jessica Barrett, a student who challenges you to face your fears!
Her first placement was as Elizabeth May’s Human Rights and Justice Committee representative. Jessica shares that she had a “meaningful experience sitting in on and taking notes for the Human Rights and Justice Parliamentary Committee on the Hill. She tells us that she learned about “current bills that were being passed” and was exposed to the “inner workings of parliament.”
Jessica explains that her placement on Parliament Hill was a learning experience that allowed her to apply her class teachings and acquire useful skills while “contributing to something bigger.”
“The CSL placement reminded me what it’s like to be in the workforce and taught me practical skills like being punctual, meeting deadlines and being dependable. More specifically, it allowed me to develop my critical thinking and public speaking skills and helped me become more assertive.”
Since then, Jessica has been an active volunteer with the University of Ottawa’s World Vision Club and World Vision Canada, totalling over 350 hours for her Co-Curricular Record. When asked what piece of advice she would give to a uOttawa student, Jessica responds, “Do something that scares you. You’ll come out the other side with exponential growth in what you didn’t know you had in yourself.”
Volunteering and fungus: a uOttawa biology student’s learning journey - Constanza Maass, Faculty of Science
What is learning? It’s the knowledge we acquire through teachings and experience.
At the University of Ottawa, the Community Service Learning (CSL) program provides an opportunity for students to gain experience and apply what they learn in class. Constanza Maass, a fourth-year uOttawa biology student, participated in CSL during her ecology class with Professor Jeremy Kerr in second year. CSL connected Maass with Oak Valley Pioneer Park, where she gained valuable hands-on experience related to biodiversity threats.
“For my project, I did research on the butternut canker, a fungus that has caused a significant decline in butternut trees in Ontario,” says Maass. “The ultimate goal is to grow a butternut tree resistant to the canker. During my visit to the park, I inspected each tree for traces of the canker and recorded my findings,” she explains.
The benefits of her CSL placement go both ways. While Maass gained valuable experience, Oak Valley benefits from her discovery, which could help the park successfully combat the butternut canker fungus.
“Through my research, I came across details on temperature and humidity levels that create ideal growing environments for the canker,” she says. “My supervisors at the Oak Valley Pioneer Park were not aware of this information before I presented it to them, so it was an important discovery. Knowing that I actually contributed to their research is really exciting!”
More recently, Maass participated in another CSL placement through her third-year conservation biology class with Professor Scott Findlay, in which she had the opportunity to learn about the economic and policy implications of protecting species at risk.
The biggest benefit of volunteering, according to Maass, is getting out of the classroom and contributing in a real-world environment.
“I learned about doing research in a setting where the experiments and data had not been set up for me. When working in these circumstances, you have to use trial and error, often learning through results that are not ideal,” says Maass.
“I’ve met valuable contacts through volunteering as part of the CSL program. I’m still in touch with one of my supervisors. He’s very helpful and supportive and has provided me with a reference for a few job opportunities.”
Meet Vida Gabriel, a fourth-year chemical engineering student
When she reflected on what she had learned in this CSL course, she found that in contrast with other GNG courses, she had linked many different areas of knowledge, links that became clearer as she progressed through the course. The course allowed her to reflect on the impact of her engagement with students in an elementary school, on her work during Makerspace Community Days, and on very meaningful stories shared during the course’s group meetings. Clearly, she had learned a great deal during this course, but she also noted that other students should not become discouraged by comparing their progress or reflections with their peers’: each experience is unique and students should focus on personal growth. Participating in the CSL program made her realize that in the real world, it’s ok to ask questions, make mistakes and learn from them. She had some more advice for future GNG 3100 students: “Don’t think of it as just another engineering course, because it’s not. Consider this as a time for growth and an opportunity for personal reflection.”
Vida found that her experience in the CSL program helped boost her motivation and pushed her to do things she might not have considered before. Her volunteer placement experience involved teaching and mentoring students in schools, and has encouraged her to pursue new endeavours in her personal life. She has applied to be a Team Lead for the Community Advisors on the new STEM floors at the Henderson Residence. Vida also applied for, and was awarded, a Women’s Undergraduate Summer Student Research Award, which enabled her to work in Dr. Marc A. Dubé’s lab on polymer reaction engineering for 16 weeks.
Although Vida had volunteered before, her perspective on volunteering is much deeper now. She would like to continue to be involved in her community and she now sees volunteering as an opportunity for outreach, and a way to connect with and motivate others. When she started the course, Vida had commented on how much she would get out of it, but once the course was over, she realized just how much she can give to others. Her professor, Hanan Anis, is optimistic that there will be new volunteer opportunities for Engineering students like Vida. “This is the first time engineering has participated in Community Service Learning (CSL) but this will not be the last. September 2016 will see more opportunities for community engagement in entrepreneurship, STEM. Stay tuned, there is more to come!”.
Community Service Learning: Combining Knowledge with Engagement
It is no surprise that an increasing number of uOttawa classes are embracing the CSL option. “Getting students out of the classroom plays a key part in improving the student experience. You have to stop teaching just theory; you’ve got to deal with the practical too,” says Gary Slater, Associate Vice-President of Student Affairs.
This unique alternative to traditional learning methods is just one example of how uOttawa students are increasingly looking for inspiration outside the box – and thriving.
Rebecca Hussen and Paula Adler are two such students. They have done more than simply benefit from the CSL program: they have undeniably left their markon it, and in turn, on the uOttawa campus as a whole.
Although their placements and fields of interest are very different, which testifies to the overall diversity of the CSL program, both students have this in common: they demonstrate the exceptional self-motivation required to become socially active and accountable citizens.
A former Classics student, Rebecca Hussen recently transferred into the political science program. She found that getting involved in a hands-on placement in the field was an ideal way to find her sea legs in her new program.
Rebecca completed her CSL placement as a campaign volunteer for federal Liberal candidate Andrew Leslie. She spent 30 hours knocking on doors, making phone calls and connecting with the community. Ultimately, her work paid off in more ways than one. Not only did her placement provide her with valuable insight into the challenges of the Canadian political system, which she would have been hard-pressed to appreciate in a classroom, it also contributed to securing a victory for Mr. Leslie in the federal riding of Orleans.
“It helps you enjoy university a lot more. Simply put, it’s a lot more fun than just being stuck in class,” she said. “It’s something I wish every student could experience.”
Meanwhile, Paula Adler is operating at the other end of the university spectrum. This second-year medical student is currently spearheading the Mental Health Initiative, an outreach program designed for Ottawa area schoolchildren that seeks to enhance awareness of mental health issues and reducing the stigma associated with them.
Paula’s CV is as diverse as it wide-ranging. During her time at uOttawa, where she studied biomedical sciences as an undergraduate, Paula has participated in a number of different extracurricular activities, ranging from mentoring at the Office of Undergraduate Research and co-editing the University of Ottawa Journal of Medicine, to volunteering with Keep A Child Alive, the Ottawa Hospital and the Ottawa Mission.
However, the Mental Health Initiative may be her most ambitious undertaking yet. To help run the program, Paula has had to recruit two other medical students and is working closely with various experts, ranging from educators and child psychologists to clinicians at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). This collaboration has given birth to a series of workshops, which she will present in Ottawa classrooms in the coming months.
“We did some review of the existing resources available across Ottawa and found that our program would be a good supplement to benefit the community.” Paula and her team found that children between 7 and 9 were at the right age to begin discussing this topic. “We found that there wasn’t another program targeting anxiety in that age group.”
Although she believes that the initiative would have materialized on its own, she credits the CSL program for providing it with a solid framework and for allowing it to blossom to its full potential.
Once underway, the program may expand to include students from other faculties. However, for the time being, Paula and her team remain entirely focused on designing and running workshops to help educate assist in the education of young students in Ottawa.
“Ultimately, the goal is to help students become more able and more willing to talk openly about mental illness.”
The cat’s out of the bag – CSL appears to be an increasingly viable option for students at the University of Ottawa. And the numbers don’t lie: over 1300 placements were carried out in the past semester alone, the equivalent of almost 80 percent of participants in all of 2014-2015.
Thanks to the dedication of students like Paula and Rebecca, there seem to be sunny ways ahead for the CSL program at uOttawa.