When the classroom and community service collide
While experiential learning has become a buzzword in academic circles, it’s a methodology deeply ingrained in Mount Royal university’s DNA.
From the University’s century-long roots, Mount Royal has emerged as a national leader in a strand of teaching and learning known as community service learning. The University recently introduced a special citation to better recognize students who are making a difference in the heart of their communities.
Working under the blistering Caribbean sun, with their hands and nursing scrubs awash in fingerpaint, a group of Mount Royal students found themselves hitting a crossroad between textbook concepts and the sombre realities of one of the world’s worst slums.
It was February 2014 when the nursing students were asked to teach healthy habits to youngsters in the impoverished communities of Maria Auxiliadora and Soto barrios in the Dominican Republic. The day’s lesson plan seemed simple enough. By getting the kids to dirty their hands with paint, the student nurses were creating a fun opportunity to practise handwashing, a priority global health-promotion strategy.
But on this particularly poignant day — among many uplifting moments on their two-week partnership with T.E.A.R.S Ministries — the undergraduates recall how an electrical outage had knocked out the pump that supplied the school’s water.
School administrators offered to tap into the community’s bottled water supply to finish the exercise. As active promoters of community health, the Mount Royal students questioned the wisdom of teaching hand-washing with scarcely available drinking water. For Megan Karmann, it was a window into the impossible choices made on the low-income island every day.
“We felt sick,” Karmann says. “But we needed to look beyond the immediate challenges to the community’s long-term goals.”
The students were learning firsthand about the complexities of global inequities, the importance of partnerships and the value of capacity building, which are essential parts of community health nursing. They endeavoured to provide sustainable life skills that would endure long after the Calgary crew returned home.
“We came in with our assumptions and it was important for us to realize what the community actually needed,” says fellow third-year nursing student Megan VanderZwaag.
What Karmann and VanderZwaag experienced last year is known to academics as Community Service Learning (CSL). This educational approach pairs credit students with partners in their chosen fields to collaborate on a community-identified issue.
Proponents draw a clear line between CSL and other experiential activities such as co-op, work-term and field school programs. CSL participants aren’t paper pushers or tourists. They’re expected to hone their academic skills, while deepening their sense of civic engagement.