Sunaina Assanand (middle) during her recent trip to Uganda.
Sunaina Assanand’s drive to transform how her psychology students learn led her back to Uganda this summer, four decades after her family’s exile.
Sunaina Assanand was a young child when her family was forced to flee Uganda in 1972. Four decades later, the UBC instructor returned to her homeland to teach a powerful new psychology course with three generations of her family in tow.
Ugandan President Idi Amin’s expulsion of thousands of people of South Asian origin forced her family to leave their possessions, business and property behind. This summer she returned to Uganda as part of a course that she developed, after she began asking herself how she could affect change at a global level.
The course, Psychology and Developing Societies, examines the application of psychology to international development. It consists of pre-assigned readings, in-class activities, peer instruction, discussion, intensive writing, and an international service learning placement in Africa.
International service learning. Flexible learning
When first envisioning this course she turned to her colleagues at the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (UBC-CLI), who introduced her to their International Service Learning (ISL) program. The program goals and a funding opportunity through the Arts Research Abroad Program aligned closely with the course she was considering.
Assanand believes ISL fosters a sense of civic engagement and responsibility among students, allowing them to understand how their education relates to critical social issues.
She also knew that she would have to design the course creatively to challenge motivated students. She implemented a flipped classroom approach to meet their needs – meaning they did readings in advance, and expanded upon the readings in class through diverse and thought-provoking activities.
Prior to their service learning placements, the 19 students attended class sessions on topics related to the pre-assigned readings. The readings were explored as a group during class through in-class exercises, peer instruction, and discussion. This flipped classroom approach allowed Assanand to maximize thoughtful and collaborative reflection among the students. The model was successful and transformational for both the instructor and her students.
“I was transformed by my experiences teaching this course. Every class, the students demonstrated passion, commitment, and insight. They inspired me as their teacher,” says Assanand.
“As for the students’ experiences, the course allowed for learning at three levels: First, the course fostered academic development among the students, enabling them to examine the practical realities of theories they learned in class. Second, the course fostered personal development among the students, as they recognize their strengths and weaknesses in a cultural environment so distinct from their own. Finally, the course fostered civic development among the students, teaching them that they can contribute to social change both locally and internationally.
The journey to Africa
The students’ service learning placements are 12 weeks in duration with partner organizations of UBC’s ISL program. Students are currently in South Africa, Swaziland and Uganda and are performing assessments of psychological variables and interventions related to HIV-AIDS, female empowerment, and educational access.
One student is examining psychological factors that inhibit women from using antiretroviral drugs while breast-feeding, a simple prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Other students are looking at factors that contribute to condom use in couples in which one partner has HIV.
Another group is developing youth empowerment workshops aimed at increasing educational access for children in Swaziland. In Uganda, a student is assessing the efficacy of a psychological intervention for AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children by evaluating the mental health of children who have received counseling versus those who haven’t.
While in Uganda herself, Assanand saw first hand the impact of her students’ work on the community. She met with her students, their host families and staff at the partner organizations. The reception she and her students received gave her the sense of purpose she was looking for through teaching this course.
After she completed her own course-related activities, her father, mother, husband, daughter, brother and sister-in-law joined her in Uganda. Many of them hadn’t returned to Uganda since 1972.
“I didn’t anticipate the strong emotions that overwhelmed me,” says Assanand. “I was most moved by my daughter, who was able to experience my family’s history through the eyes of her grandparents. To see where my parents grew up–and how that contributed to who they are–gave me a sense of continuity that was lacking.”
She also learned something about herself, something that surprised her. “I had an a-ha moment,” she says. “Not only did I gain a deeper understanding of my family’s origins and the devastation they experienced, I realized that my own learning experiences paralleled the learning experiences of my students. This was a profound moment of insight for me.”
About Sunaina Assanand
Sunaina Assanand is a cultural psychologist and an instructor in the Learning Enhancement Area of UBC’s Department of Psychology. She completed her graduate studies with UBC Psychology having developed a strong passion for teaching as a graduate student. Sunaina joined the UBC Department of Psychology as a faculty member in 2009.