“A big part of it is that you’re helping yourself – you’re creating new experiences, you’re developing life skills, you’re learning so much,” says Kunashni Parikh. She’s part of a new annual program that links UBC’s international undergraduates with local community organizations.
The initiative is an example of what’s called “community-based experiential learning” (CBEL) – an approach that stresses collaborative learning and allows students to apply their in-class knowledge to real-world issues. It was launched by UBC’s International Student Initiative, the Centre for Community Engaged Learning, and International Student Development.
The first installment of the initiative wrapped up in March and involved 27 students from UBC’s International Scholars Program (ISP), which supports outstanding undergraduates from around the world who demonstrate financial need, academic excellence, and leadership qualities.
“They came here to study at UBC as passionate, globally minded and socially conscious students,” explains Peter Wanyenya, an international student advisor. “So this new program is an opportunity to engage them collectively with our communities in new and different ways.”
Beginning in January 2015, small teams of ISP students were paired up with community groups, including the Vancouver Aquarium, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Potluck Café Society and the Little Mountain Neighbourhood House. Students were required to complete 40 hours of project work, guided by an overarching theme of health promotion and environmental sustainability.
Hands-on, eye-opening experiences
Anh Le, a Vietnamese student who hopes to major in food science, worked on a placement with Green Zebra Markets, a mini-farmer’s market that sets up weekly in Vancouver’s Marpole neighbourhood and at the Musqueam Recreation Centre. Le and her student colleagues from Turkey and Korea assisted with a wide range of market activities, including set up and retail sales. They also bolstered Green Zebra’s social media channels and website, designed a customer satisfaction survey, volunteer handbook and more.
“The market gave me a hands-on experience with what I studied in my Land and Food Systems classes, and enhanced my experience at UBC,” says Le. “Working with the market taught me so much more than I what I could have learned only in classes.”
“It was a huge help,” says Rachel Elves, UBC alumna and founder of Green Zebra. “They were able to take on projects and see them to completion.” Elves, who has also studied in the U.S., is well aware of the social challenges that can face international students. “It can be isolating – you’re out of place in a culture that’s not your own. It’s hard to meet new people and get your bearings,” she says. “So I thought it would be great to get them involved.”
Parikh, an Indian undergrad who plans to specialize in neuroscience, was one of three UBC students – the others hailed from Bangladesh and Kenya – who partnered with the Musqueam Youth Program (MYP). MYP is part of Bridge Through Sport, whose goals include making UBC more accessible and attractive to Aboriginal youth and families, and enhancing knowledge of the Musqueam community and its history at the university.
The emphasis of this ISP project was cultural learning. Each Wednesday night, the students attended workshops where they connected with Musqueam youth aged 13 to 18. The scholars and students shared personal stories, played sports and created art, with the ultimate goal being a mutual learning experience.
Near the end of the placement, the UBC participants were responsible for conducting a workshop. Parikh, also a gifted soccer player and one-time member of the Indian junior women’s team, shared her own inspirational story about her on-field injuries, setbacks, and triumphs.
“It was very well received, and they started telling me stories about their own lives,” recalls Parikh, who followed up with activities that included a soccer game.
“That was really inspiring, because soccer is a big deal in the community of Musqueam. The kids totally love it,” says Nigel Grenier, the MYP student coordinator and a UBC undergrad completing his degree in the Department of History. “It was also an opportunity for the scholars to see what the Musqueam community is actually like, and just get to know them as people,” he says. “That was an eye-opening experience.”
Now that the first round of the ISP program is finished, participants are excited about the prospects for future rollouts. “I think this program is vital to an all-round experience of university life,” says Parikh. “You’re moving beyond campus, you’re interacting – and you’re also helping.”