Growth in the Trek Program and Reading Week projects

Our efforts to get UBC students volunteering in Downtown Eastside organizations and inner city schools really paid off. The number of students participating in the Trek Program doubled every year until 2004-2005 when we had to cap enrollment at 800 because there was a limit to what the staff team could handle. After that, we began setting annual targets for growth that were ambitious but manageable. Instead of the approximately 100% annual growth of the first five years, we aimed for annual growth rates in the 25-30% range. We met or exceeded our targets almost every year.

Obviously, students were hungry for the kind of learning opportunities we were offering. As the program grew we gradually created an infrastructure to manage all the activity required to support both students and the community organizations and schools where students were working.

Strengthening the Trek infrastructure

In 2002 we secured office space on campus and moved the growing Trek staff team to the UBC campus so they could be closer to professors, students, and staff colleagues in allied units such as Student Development. Also in 2002, we instituted a web-based application process that made the registration process easier for students.

Gradually we standardized the ways we recruited, oriented, and placed students. At the beginning of every academic year, the Trek staff team and senior Trek students were highly visible across campus, handing out information, giving pitches to classes and student clubs, and setting up information booths at student welcome events.

With so many students enrolling in the program and the number of partner organizations also growing, it was no longer feasible to invite everyone to an evening orientation and matching session on campus. After experimenting with different approaches, we settled into a structure that worked well. One-day orientation sessions for new recruits would start in September and continue through October. Each session involved about 20 students. These sessions were held at the storefront. They included an overview of the Trek Program and its goals, information about available placements, a self-guided walking tour of the Downtown Eastside, and time for socialization and discussion. We developed templates for the self-guided walking tour that included maps and descriptions of the key points of interest in the neighbourhood. We also developed templates for overviews of the Trek Program and partner organizations and a menu of ice-breaker games. But some autonomy was left in the hands of the staff members and students who facilitated each orientation session.

Grandview gardenersAs the Trek Program grew and the volunteer placements became more differentiated, we developed orientation sessions tailored for students in different settings. This was especially important for students who were volunteering in inner city schools, since for them, being familiar with issues in the Downtown Eastside was not as relevant as being familiar with methods to engage children in learning activities.

We identified academic articles on the Downtown Eastside and on Community Service Learning that we encouraged students to read. We also wrote our own articles to provide students with what we considered essential frames of reference. For example, one article introduced students to various approaches to Community Service Learning (CSL), including charity, social justice, and community development. We encouraged students not to feel they had to align themselves with a particular approach. We argued that it was more important to understand these different approaches, look for signs that a particular approach was being followed in their volunteer placements, and notice how different approaches played out.

As we became more aware of how important it was to get students reflecting critically on their experiences, we experimented with different ways to introduce reflection activities into the Trek Program. For example, we invited students to evening pizza and discussion groups. We sent reflection questions to students via an e-newsletter and encouraged them to write about their experiences and thoughts. We also instituted an annual writing contest and awarded cash prizes for the best reflective essays. (Seeing the value of CSLhas links to some of the best submissions).

Becoming a well-oiled machine

Trek poster
Trek recruitment poster

By 2004 the Trek Program had established a regular annual rhythm. In the summer, preparation for the major student recruitment drive in the fall would begin. The website was updated with the roster of available placements. We prepared new versions of recruitment materials, including posters, banners, brochures, display boards for campus events such as career fairs, and bookmarks for distribution at the UBC bookstore. With the help of Chloe Lewis, our photographer, we designed templates for these materials that we refreshed each year, e.g., by replacing old photographs with new ones. We recruited students from previous years to help spread the word on campus in the last weeks of August and first weeks of September.

By November, most students were settled into their weekly placements. At the beginning of the academic term in January, a second, more modest round of recruitment would occur, followed by orientation sessions and the management of the placement process.

Towards the end of the academic year, before exam time, we would elicit feedback from students, through interviews, focus groups, or questionnaires. At this time of year, we would also solicit nominations for the awards we gave to outstanding Trek students, hold information sessions for students who wanted to apply for summer project awards and review these applications and writing contest submissions. In March we held what became an annual Trek recognition breakfast hosted by the President. In April, May and June we would meet with community partners to elicit their feedback and discuss goals and plans for the next year. Then the cycle would begin again.

The Trek Leadership Network

As the Trek Program grew, it got harder for the staff team to get to know all the students. In our annual evaluation interviews we started to hear students say they felt isolated in their placements. So in 2002 we brought together a small number of students who had been in the Trek Program for at least a year and formed the Trek Leadership Network. The idea was that Trek Leaders would make connections with other students that volunteered in the same organization or shared the same interests. We anticipated that leaders would organize and implement specific projects in the organizations where they were volunteering, as a way of both connecting students and supporting the organization.

TLN teamwork training
Trek Leadership Network teamwork training

Over the next few years the Trek Leadership Network (TLN) expanded from eight students to 12, then to 25, and then to 35 in 2005-2006. We expanded the network so dramatically because students were so enthusiastic about what they were learning. The TLN met every week for an evening where the students learned about leadership, engaged in reflective dialogue, and socialized over dinner. In addition, we organized team-building retreats at the beginning of the school year and celebrations at the end of the year. Typically, teams of two or three students undertook a special project in partnership with a community organization over the course of the academic year as a way of practicing their leadership skills. As the network grew and became more formalized, we invested more and more staff resources in planning and facilitating the weekly sessions and mentoring the students.

By 2005-2006 we had created an impressive leadership training program that students really valued. The TLN had evolved into an elite group of students who themselves definitely had a strong sense of belonging. But unfortunately, the leaders were not really connecting with students outside the TLN. We realized we were not meeting our goal of building strong networks of affiliation among the hundreds of students in the Trek Program. We also realized we had created a student leadership program that was in competition with UBC’s other student leadership programs. And the TLN had become a magnet for our staff resources, partly because it was so rewarding working with this keen and committed group of students. We reluctantly came to the conclusion that this expenditure of time and energy on such a small proportion of Trek students could no longer be justified. With regret, we made the decision to discontinue the TLN in 2006.

Scaling up Reading Week Community Service Learning projects

The first Reading Week project we did in 2002 gave me and my team a taste of how powerful Community Service Learning can be. Organizing all the logistics for this kind of project was a significant amount of work but the learning outcomes were well worth it. We decided to expand this approach to CSL.

Reading Week 2003: Double the number of students

For Reading Week 2003 we recruited 40 UBC students to do four projects. Two of these projects took place in Eastside elementary schools, in keeping with our goal to expand our engagement in Vancouver schools. Building on our previous collaboration with the University of Guelph, one project involved sending a team of UBC students to Guelph to work alongside local students as they refurbished a homeless shelter.

To help manage the increased size and complexity of the Reading Week undertaking, we enlisted the help of colleagues from Student Development at UBC. Having seen how well prepared the University of Guelph students were the year before, we tried to prepare UBC students for their foray into the “inner city” by giving them articles to read and questions to think about before their Reading Week project started. The formal educational aspects of the experience during Reading Week included participation in workshops and discussions about inner city issues such as food security. In addition, we gave the students blank journals and had Margery Fee, an English professor, come and speak about writing reflectively.

In the closing circle on the final day of the projects, we again heard amazing reports from students about how the projects had affected them. We were reassured that the powerful learning outcomes we had observed the previous year were not a fluke. In 2003, we also noticed that the projects in the schools seemed to ignite some kind of magic. So we decided to really scale things up.

Reading Week 2004: Five times the number of students!

In 2004, we recruited almost 200 students and organized 17 projects. Eleven of the projects took place in inner city elementary schools. Five took place in inner city non-profit organizations. Again, we sent a team of UBC students to Guelph where they worked alongside local students to do a project in a mental health organization. Again, we collaborated with UBC Student Development to implement the model that was emerging. But the jump from 40 students doing four projects to 200 students doing 17 projects was a leap into the unknown. We used a range of tactics to try to manage this ambitious undertaking.

We assigned one staff or faculty member to be a leader for each project and assigned at least one student leader with experience in the Trek Program to each project. We provided formal training sessions to prepare project leaders for their roles. The faculty and staff project leaders came from 14 different academic or administrative units at UBC. Some staff members got permission from their supervisors to do the projects during work time since their involvement was seen as a professional development opportunity. Other staff members were so keen to be a project leader they took vacation days so they could be involved.

The schedule for each of the three project implementation days included both service work and an educational workshop. We recruited over 35 people from the community or the university to offer workshops on a variety of topics that were relevant to the different projects. Topics included sustainability, social responsibility, diversity, co-ops as alternative approaches to business, and the politics of injection drug use. From our point of view, these workshops constituted the “academic content” element of the Community Service Learning (CSL) model.

We started and ended the week with a one-day gathering where all the students came together. We rented the large auditorium at the Chinese Cultural Centre in the Downtown Eastside for both sessions. At the orientation day, which came to be known as “Reading Week kick-off,” we introduced students to a range of inner city issues and tried to show how these were connected to the projects students would be doing and the themes that would be covered in the workshops.

Chinese Cultural Centre

At the closing session, we celebrated what the projects had accomplished and encouraged students to reflect on their experiences over the previous three days. For example, we posted large sheets of butcher paper on the walls and invited students to write answers to questions such as: What surprised you? What was your favourite moment? What did you learn? What challenged you? We prepared slide shows with photographs from the different projects so the whole group could see what each team had done. And, following the practice of previous years, we closed the day with a talking circle that invited each student to offer his or her concluding reflections. But given the size of this year’s group, there were about 20 talking circles, not just one.

This enterprise was both exciting and anxiety-provoking. It felt overwhelming at times. And as Reading Week unfolded, it became clear that those of us who were responsible for the projects were not the only ones who felt overwhelmed.

Confronting complexity

Since the workshop given by VANDU (the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) in the first Reading Week project had been such an eye-opener for students, we invited VANDU to do a workshop again. But the two drug users that spoke in 2004 did not evoke the same empathy as the men who had spoken in 2002.

One of this year’s speakers was an active user of cocaine who defiantly defended his right to use drugs since he was gainfully employed and not harming anyone but perhaps himself. The second speaker had tried to get off drugs but had not succeeded. This man described some of the challenges of the road to detox and abstinence. He emphasized his annoyance at the nurses in a detox centre he had been in. He told a story about a nurse who sat at the nursing station reading a novel rather than tending to the men around her who were going through the hell of detox. This drug user expressed the sentiment common in the Downtown Eastside that such professionals were “poverty pimps” who depended on the misery of others for their comfortable lifestyles.

Neither of the drug users gave students much of an entry into their lives, partly because they were not very good public speakers. I saw the students at this workshop divide into two camps. The students who were studying subjects such as science and business were intrigued, not having heard such views before. They asked lots of questions, obviously driven by genuine curiosity. However, the students who envisioned themselves becoming a helping professional, e.g., a nurse or social worker, were upset. They sat rigidly, frowning. They attempted to defend the professionals who were being criticized, but their points were dismissed by the drug users. Eventually these students subsided into silence.

As Reading Week progressed, we heard through the grapevine that some students had been profoundly affected by the VANDU presentation but not in the way we hoped. These students were expressing harsh judgements about drug users and poor people. They were disparaging people who exploited the social safety net rather than making the effort to lift themselves out of poverty and addiction. Some of the project leaders worried that these students were infecting the whole group. The leaders were afraid these students’ criticisms were undoing our efforts to humanize marginalized people and expand students’ understanding of inner city issues. They did not know how to respond but felt something needed to be done.

My team and I agreed there was a need to respond. We knew from our previous work in the Downtown Eastside that exposure to marginalized people usually inspired students to question their assumptions. But occasionally students’ dehumanizing stereotypes were reinforced. We did not believe it was our job to promote particular political ideologies or advocate for one approach to social issues over another. But we did believe we had a responsibility to encourage students to think deeply about the complexity of social issues and to consider many different perspectives, especially those held by people whose voices were typically silenced.

Margo Fryer
Margo Fryer

So at the closing session of Reading Week, when all the students and leaders were again gathered in the large auditorium at the Chinese Cultural Centre, I gave a short talk intended to openly address the disquiet some students were feeling. I acknowledged that it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of some of the issues we had been talking about. I made the point that there are no easy answers for the big issues facing society. I suggested that, rather than looking for easy answers or quick fixes, a better strategy was to ask more penetrating questions. I acknowledged that doing so inevitably causes discomfort. And I offered my “top ten tips” on how to avoid being overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the issues, and how to resist the temptation to simply turn away. (Click here to read the complete talk.)

Afterwards, when the assembly broke for lunch, several people expressed appreciation for what I had said. What meant the most to me was a brief encounter with one woman student, older than most, who told me that my comments had really helped her. She didn’t say much because she was struggling to control tears, but she did let me know that what I said helped her to make peace with what she was feeling.

Intoxicated. And sobered

The Learning Exchange team believed in the value of what we were attempting to do by expanding Reading Week so dramatically in 2004. But we did not know if our approach would work. By the end of the closing event, my colleagues and I were exhausted. But we were also vibrating with the infectious energy of the 200 students who had filled the auditorium that day. And we were intoxicated by the fact we had actually pulled it off. The undertaking came together extremely well, notwithstanding a few hiccups (e.g., project leaders not showing up, students getting lost on the way to the kick-off, the venue’s sound system being less than ideal). Most importantly, we were gratified that in the closing circles, students again spoke of their minds being opened and hearts being touched.

But we were also sobered by the complexity and depth of the forces we were unleashing. And we had learned that unpredictability was going to be inevitable in any undertaking involving so many people. It was clear that, in our drive to expand student participation in CSL, we would need to be vigilant about preserving the integrity of our intentions. We would need to be careful not to sacrifice quality in the interests of growth.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Seeing the value of Community Service Learning.