Student Equity Award highlights student leaders in social justice

Community Service-Learning Director, Dr. David Peacock, introduces a new award granted to students from equity deserving backgrounds, recognizing their work in the community.

Jill Flaman - 09 December 2021

I sat down with the Community Service-Learning Director, Dr. David Peacock, to learn more about the newly granted Student Equity Award. 

Jill:  Recently CSL awarded a student equity award. Can you tell me about how the award came to be or how it was initially imagined?

David:  With community service-learning (CSL), we have a very particular model of experiential learning supporting organizations in the not-for-profit sector primarily. CSL is connected to courses, so it's an academic form of experiential learning. With that kind of programming there is a project, around 20-30 hours per student, in an academic term. You have to make sure that the project is aligned with what the community partner would like. We've done this for a long time, that model of deepening academic learning for students, but also providing some support to not-for-profit organizations. Our students can make a difference in that sense.

I had been tracking the funding coming from the federal government for this kind of thing. It was going through organizations like the Business Higher Education Roundtable, and Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning (CEWIL), but our model didn't always work because often there'd be a bias towards longer forms of paid work in industry settings. For instance, there was a bias for STEM industries and disciplines, whereas our home is in the Faculty of Arts. We also connect very heavily with the Faculty of Education and other disciplines more related to the humanities and social sciences.

Jill: Who specifically was eligible? What were the requirements?

David: I was looking for a way to be able to support our students and support our community partners through the students' work. I realized that CEWIL, through their last round of funding, was wanting to support students from what we call equity deserving backgrounds. I thought, we can do this where we don't have to fundamentally change the CSL model, but we can provide more resources to students from equity deserving backgrounds. It’s wanting to assist our students with extra support to participate in learning that will deepen their academic engagement and success, and also make the transition to meaningful careers a little easier. 

Awards were available for students from equity deserving backgrounds or identities such as:  Indigenous, Racialized Canadians, Newcomers, those registered with U of A Accessibility Services for Academic Support, and Rural students. These students also must be registered in a CSL course in the Fall 2021 academic term. A few examples of CSL projects that these students are engaged with include: working with Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers to mentor and build relationships with newcomer students, to identify their passions and learn how they can be applied through civic engagement projects; working with Braided Journeys to work with Indigenous elementary students helping to improve their literacy skills and overall confidence; and working with the Youth Restorative Action Project (YRAP) to attend restorative justice conferences with young people who have caused harm.

Jill: Was there a lot of interest? Can you describe the adjudication process?

David: We actually had 130 applications for 50 awards, each of which was for a thousand dollars, to support the students in this work. Because of the high demand for students to participate, we had to equitably determine how we would allocate these awards. There was an adjudication committee who put together a process where we looked at a number of equity categories, which were given to us by the funder, CEWIL. We realized that these categories can often intersect with each other and compound the relative disadvantage of certain students.

We took what's called an intersectional approach to understand that if students are presenting with a number of different identities, then that student would have an extra claim on an equity award. These 50 students are students who certainly need assistance and don't only receive assistance from our particular reward, but they probably haven't had much assistance to do experiential learning through their undergraduate degree. And that's what we really wanted to contribute too.

Jill: Why was this award a good fit for CSL students in particular?

David: CSL is already a fairly inclusive form of experiential learning, because it's embedded into the curriculum and students have to take courses anyway. There are no charges or fees to participate in CSL, and it doesn't lengthen the time that they are at university. The other thing that we've discovered through our evaluations is that we have a high proportion of what's called “first generation” university students. That is, when we ask our students about the highest educational achievement of their parents or caregivers, we find a higher proportion of first generation students who participate in CSL - whose parents haven't completed an undergraduate degree.

I've thought about, why is it that first generation students are attracted to CSL? There are multiple reasons, but one of them is that it can benefit communities from which the students come. If you come from a less privileged background and you have the opportunity to, for example, work on a food security project to help folks from across Edmonton gain improved access to healthy, nutritious food; or if you're helping students connect with an organization which serves women who are trying to move beyond gender-based violence - I think these students intuitively understand that this kind of work could benefit communities from which they may come from.

There's an intuitive understanding when you come from a less privileged background that working with social change-oriented, social justice-oriented organizations in the community can achieve a better life for people. CSL certainly helps the individual benefit, but it can also benefit the communities from which they come. I think that's a draw for our particular form of experiential learning.

Jill: What does being able to offer this award mean to you or to the CSL program? Why is it important?

David: When we have to utilize the resources that are entrusted to us in an equitable manner, we have to make sure that we always seek out those people who need extra assistance to participate in any kind of programming in higher education. When we offer these kinds of experiential learning programs to students which are embedded into the curriculum, we have to make sure that we can include everyone in that. The way you include everyone in an experience is to align your energies and resources to those who are most likely to miss out.

Many students are looking for additional experiences to help them because there are more students coming to post-secondary education looking for new opportunities and experiences so that they can distinguish themselves from their peers.

We want to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to participate in these things, but with CSL, it's also about introducing students to a wider world of social change and social justice activity in communities, which is just a good thing to do. It provides students with a sense of meaning and purpose, which is bigger than themselves. And it gives them hope that they can change the world so that they can have a better chance of fitting into it. Some forms of experiential learning are more about twisting and conforming the student into the way the world is to succeed. I think with CSL, we've got to try and change the world so it's more open and inclusive to who we are, so we can live and work better than we do right now.

Jill: My understanding is that this was a one-time award. Is there any possibility this award could be offered again?

David: CEWIL, through its iHub innovative funding arrangement, has ongoing rounds of funding. They want to spread those resources around to as many programs as they can. I'm not sure that we can rely on this kind of funding forever, but we're certainly willing to learn from it. And then share what we've learned with wider networks to help them understand how you can really increase the inclusivity of experiential learning for equity deserving people.

To see what some of the Equity Award recipients have to say about their CSL experience, please visit our blog, Faces of CSL.

Jill Flaman has been working with the CSL office since 2011, and sits on the Faculty of Arts Committee on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.