Bringing connections to the community

By Sarah Rohoman
February 27, 2014

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Amanda Bartlett fondly remembers how rewarding it was to help a woman in the London community learn to speak Spanish.

“She wasn’t quite confident, but by the end we were talking in Spanish, having conversations and she was much more comfortable,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett is not a Spanish language instructor. The former Western student simply took a course in Spanish Language and Linguistics that gave students an opportunity to be paired with a community member looking to improve their English or Spanish skills through a program called Community Service Learning (CSL).


CSL is an organization that integrates existing courses at Western with community volunteering. Faculty members approach with the ideas they have for a course and then CSL facilitates the community component. Last year, the program facilitated 15 courses for about 400 students, four of which had an international component. More than 1,000 students have participated since 2010.

Bartlett enjoyed CSL so much she took another course that incorporated it.

CSL started at Western in 2003. “It started with a five-person trip down to Pittsburgh and it really just took off from there,” said Anne-Marie Fischer, CSL coordinator.

A group of students travelled to the Steel City to volunteer with a program called Alternative Spring Break (ASB); CSL was bor from that. Since that first trip, CSL has become involved in both Western curriculum as well as co-curriculum, meaning outside of the classroom.

“It is really about reciprocity with our community,” Fischer said. “While students are getting a really meaningful learning experience, we’re also contributing to the community in a very meaningful way. It really is a win-win for everyone involved.”

A course called Rwanda: Culture, Society and Reconstruction has an international community component. Students take a five-week trip to Rwanda where they volunteer with reconstruction as well as witness the after-effects of the 1994 genocide.

This clearly goes beyond your typical class where you sit down in a lecture hall, Fischer said. “Students are able to engage with each other on a very deep level they wouldn’t necessarily engage in with a classroom setting,” she added.

CSL is not limited to the Faculty of Arts & Humanities; there are courses in Health Sciences, Music, Science and Social Science. Students in Biology, for example, can take Restoration Ecology which has now been running for three years.

“They’ll be working on a plot of land that’s kind of been neglected and make it suitable for hiking trails for the public,” Fischer said. “They get to really see the concepts brought to life.”

University students typically spend most of their education sitting in a lecture hall, but CSL changes that.

“We know that’s what students want. They want to get the practical skills, to go beyond the classroom and make connections with their local community. We’re responding to the changing face of higher education,” Fischer said.

CSL has been running in the United States for more than a quarter century, but is still relatively new to Canada. There are 34 universities and colleges in Canada with a CSL program. At Western, it began mostly with co-curricular activity and became integrated with courses in 2009.

For students who want to get involved with volunteering in the community, but cannot take one of the integrated courses, CSL has co-curricular programs students can join, such as ASB which last year had more than 150 participants. ASB gives students the opportunity to do volunteer work in various cities during the time they are off for spring break.

Every year CSL hosts an event in September called Western Serves which consists of 350 students, staff and faculty volunteering three hours of their time with community organizations. The event is usually booked by the first day and last year they had more than 100 people on the waiting list.

“You just feel the spirit of volunteerism and community engagement in the room, it’s almost tangible. It’s incredible,” Fischer said.

CSL also offers Community Service Learning Network which lets students know about various volunteer positions in the community. This can range from one day, to a fixed position or a project, and is ideal for busy students who want to help out when they have the time to do so. Last year, more than 150 students participated, more than 250 students were on the roster and 24 community partners involved.

Fischer is passionate about CSL and the benefits it provides for students and the community.

“Students say it’s such a meaningful learning experience for them,” she said. “It’s all about engaging with the community and building future community leaders from Western.”


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