Sept. 12, 2022

How can we empower students to see themselves as changemakers? Experiential learning project finds answers

Equitable Pathways to EL project shines a light on importance of building understanding to create sustainable change
Jessica O'Connell and Suzanne Chew
Alix Redmond

Gender pay gaps. Climate change. Systemic racism. The daily news offers us a laundry list of things that need to be overcome but tackling them can seem like a tall order for the average person.  

UCalgary geography PhD candidate Suzanne Chew has some advice for those with their eye on society’s big problems: You’re not alone — there are others you can connect with to make change.  

“Making change starts with little steps: showing up, speaking up, starting something. It’s not a big, daunting task you have to complete all on your own.”

Suzanne Chew

PhD candidate Suzanne Chew co-leads the Equitable Pathways to EL project.

Adrian Shellard

Chew is learning about these things because of an important project she’s co-leading at UCalgary — the Equitable Pathways to Experiential Learning project with the Office of Experiential Learning. Drawing on the university’s strategic equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (EDIA) directions established by the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OEDI), the project was designed to better understand student perspectives in participation, access and engagement with experiential learning. Chew came to the project through a Transformative Talent internship with the Faculty of Graduate Studies. 

Access to EL — real-world learning that enhances skills and knowledge through reflection — was raised as a priority through earlier consultations and reducing barriers is one of the three priorities in the UCalgary EL Plan (2020-25). More than 2,000 students gave their feedback on EL access and solutions for the future, sharing with a research team of OEL staff and students, student services teams, and the Taylor Institute team.  

“If organizations really want people to be engaged and make change, they have to put the human first. If you build human connections, work and lasting change will follow,” says Jessica O’Connell, manager of experiential learning, and co-lead of the project. “People will be driven because they are valued for more than their work — they are seen and heard.” 

Chew agrees: “How might we start empowering people to think of themselves as changemakers? If you’re in a culture that doesn’t empower you to make change, don't feel that you're all alone — there are others you can work with to realize the change you want to see.” 

Chew’s own research is on inclusive participation and intercultural communication in environmental decision-making, learning from Inuit communities in western Nunavut. She didn’t expect it to be applicable, but she found it was a wonderful way to use her research in a way she never imagined.  

“Accountability is so important. It's about building relationships, not a one-off meeting to extract all the information from someone. It can’t be extractive — it has to be relational,” says Chew. 

Jessica O'Connell

Jessica O'Connell is the manager of experiential learning and co-lead of the Equitable Pathways to EL project

Alix Redmond

Beyond the survey, students were invited to speak candidly about experiential learning — how to enhance it and how to ensure more students reap the benefits of learning by doing. By asking people to participate in focus groups based on their schedules and not predetermined slots or locations, they began the process in a way that empowered participants to engage on their own terms. The project was explicit that not everyone needed to talk, or be on video, or answer questions. And throughout the process, the leads stayed attentive to power dynamics as a way toward building trust.  

So, what feedback was heard in the Equitable Pathways to EL project? Things like following universal design for learning in designing EL activities, providing more information and better communication about EL activities, providing financial support to enable participation, diversifying faculty and staff representation and engagement, and integrating more EL activities in degree programs all came forward from the students involved. 

“We are all our own leaders. How we approach work, and our lives is how we lead ourselves. When people come together willing to lean into uncomfortable conversations, you can start to find solutions and make change,” says O’Connell. “It needs to come from within everyone — as a manager, I learn every day from my colleagues. Everyone has unique experiences and backgrounds — lived and professional.”  

“It’s through learning from each other that we find solutions that can last. I am looking forward to amplifying the student voice in our programming and contributing to real change with colleagues across campus.” 

Sept. 15 workshop

The Equitable Pathways to EL project is the topic of the next EDI Workshop Series offered by the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning on Sept. 15.  

Located in the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, the Office of Experiential Learning (OEL) acts as UCalgary’s central hub for experiential learning (EL), working in partnership with teams across campus. The office is guided by the priorities set in the Experiential Learning Plan to build capacity for, enhance access to and promote high-impact EL opportunities for all UCalgary students. Learn more about the OEL and connect with the team.