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Earning credit in the community

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Your next class could take you out of the classroom and into the community. The Centre for Community Partnerships pairs community organizations with professors interested in diversifying their classes.

“We’re really about creating meaningful learning opportunities outside the classroom in Toronto and the Peel region,” said Lisa Chambers, director of the center.

The program focuses upon service learning, a specific higher education pedagogy that Chambers explains is somewhere between volunteering, which mainly benefits the community, and interning, which mainly benefits the individual.

“Service learning tries to balance both,” said Chambers. “We believe its a bit of a package.” The program promotes a three-step partnership experience: development, meaningful service, and post-service reflections.”

“We really believe that unless you reflect on the experience you’re not going deeper. What were the underlying issues? How is it going to change me? […] Am I going to vote differently? Am I going to be involved in different initiatives?”

Programming is not limited to social justice courses; the centre has implemented service learning across 15 disciplines. In the 2009/2010 year service learning occurred in 22 courses and reached 1,700 students.

“You learn about a theory in a lecture and it might play itself out two days later in a community-based atmosphere.” said Chambers.

The only stipulation of the centre is that partnerships need to be based in the GTA.

“We’re unlike other centres who try to send students abroad […] our centre was created to specifically meet the needs and help create more sustainability and capacity in our local community,” said Chambers.

The centre was founded following a symposium of the Safer City Neighbourhood Taskforce at UTSC and results from the National Study of Student Engagement.

“There were certain areas where the university felt that students could have an engaged experience and one of the ways of doing that was to engage students with community,” said Chambers.
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Partnerships are created following a faculty member requests assistance in establishing a service learning program.

“We don’t get involved in anything unless the community identifies what the need is and it meets the kind of learning outcomes of the course.”

Chambers aims to create extended relationships with community organizations that continue after a course is completed. She points to a course created by Reid Locklin in the Department of Religion and Theology as a successful example of a partnership with the Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System that led to an extended multi-course relationship.

“They created a course called Religion and Theology after Auschwtiz because of the interest and knowledge Reid has in that area and then the needs of the residents,” said Chambers.

The centre is working to to use a combinations of courses, student groups, and individual volunteers to create year-round volunteer support for organizations.

“The need doesn’t go away,” said Chambers, “The need is still there in April but no one is there from the university.” The need for service learning is also not seen by everyone at U of T.

“Across the board at a big research institutions it’s not always seen as a benefit for pre-tenured faculty.”

Along with being seen by some as a distraction from publishing and research, community partnerships are also time-consuming.

“Even though we can try and provide support, it’s going to take more time with service learning pedagogy than it would a lecture of traditional teaching.”