Starting the Trek Program

One recommendation arising from the community consultation was to get students doing volunteer work in Downtown Eastside organizations. Of all the ideas about how the university might engage with the Downtown Eastside, this one seemed to have the most legs. This recommendation clearly married the interests of the university with those of social service and health organizations in the Downtown Eastside.

UBC’s President was keen to build students’ awareness of social issues and inspire a lifelong commitment to engage directly with the community. In fact, this concept of getting students involved in community-based activities was central to the university’s Trek vision. The connection between this concept and Trek 2000 was made when Martha Piper read an article by Peter Drucker in the Atlantic which argued that universities should be preparing young people to take on social responsibilities as part of their roles as participants in the knowledge society. For Martha, Drucker’s argument provided the missing link that could bind together the various elements of the Trek vision. This argument underpinned Martha’s vision of the university’s responsibility to prepare students to be “global citizens.”

To hear Martha tell the story of how Drucker’s article influenced her thinking, click below.

 “Who, in the 21st century, is going to look after the social concerns . . .?”


This idea that universities should be preparing students for socially engaged lives was in line with the movement to get students doing “service learning”—an experiential approach to learning that had been expanding in the United States for about 20 years. The fact that more and more universities in the US were integrating student volunteer work into academic courses reinforced UBC’s interest in getting students volunteering in the Downtown Eastside.

(In 2000 I visited some universities in California to learn about their service learning programs. To read my account of what I observed, follow this link.)

Since we knew that UBC was keen to get students volunteering in the Downtown Eastside, when Brian Lee and I did the consultation, we asked health and social service organizations if they were interested in having UBC students join their volunteer programs. About ten of the organizations said “yes.” This gave us an easy starting point.

Even though UBC’s goal was to eventually get students’ volunteer work integrated into course work, I had been advised to get the ball rolling by going to students first. During one of our meetings about how to get this new initiative off the ground, Herbert Rosengarten, the Executive Director of the President’s office, looked at me with a half-smile that hinted at the lessons of many years in academia and said, “If you start by trying to get faculty interested in this, you will wait a very long time.”

Connecting students and community organizations

I put up some posters and placed an ad in the Ubyssey, the student-run newspaper, inviting students to apply to a new volunteer program being started by UBC’s Downtown Eastside Initiative. Fifty students sbumitted applications. Herbert and I and Alison Speer, a UBC manager who had been involved in the development of the original idea for the Initiative, sat down together to review the applications. As we read, we got more and more excited. “Listen to this,” one of us would say, “This student has won two scholarships, has done overseas volunteer work, and has been a leader in several organizations.” And, “This student wants to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside because he wants to see if he has enough compassion to be a good emergency room doctor.” Since all the students’ backgrounds and statements of why they wanted to volunteer in the Downtown Eastside were so impressive, we accepted everyone who applied.

I set up an evening orientation session and invited the host organizations to send a representative. On a rainy November evening, a stream of students followed my handwritten signs directing them to an out-of-the-way basement meeting room on the periphery of the campus. The evening began with speakers from the Downtown Eastside talking about the history, the issues, and the strengths of the area. I spoke about UBC’s Trek 2000 vision and explained how this new volunteer program was an embodiment of that vision. The organization representatives described their services and the available volunteer opportunities. After the speakers finished, students lined up to submit resumes to the organizations they were interested in.

The representatives went home with stacks of resumes and the students went home with fantasies of what working in this or that organization might be like. I went home drained of the stress hormones that had been created by my anxiety about whether any students would actually show up and whether the speakers might voice objections to UBC’s initiative or tell stories that would scare students away. Instead of stress hormones, I was filled with the euphoria that comes when you try something new and it works. Mixed in with the transitory high was an inkling that opening up a pathway for students to get involved in the Downtown Eastside was perhaps more important than I had understood. These students were incredibly keen. Some of them even said they had been waiting for an opportunity like this to be created.

Over the next few weeks, the organizations interviewed the applicants and students made choices about where they wanted to volunteer. The result was that thirty students were placed in eight non-profit organizations as well as the two elementary schools in the Downtown Eastside.

Addressing safety concerns

Given the media stereotypes about how dangerous the Downtown Eastside is, I knew I would have to address concerns about students’ safety. I contacted UBC’s risk management services. The manager was sensible and reassuring. He outlined what the due diligence should include. I had to make sure the organizations had liability insurance, that students knew what they were getting into and were properly oriented to any safety issues specific to their placements, and that students knew who to go to if they had any concerns.

In response to this advice, I enlisted the help of UBC colleagues to do a workshop for students focusing on self-awareness, interpersonal boundaries, and how to know when you need the support of others. I also invited a police officer who was highly regarded in the Downtown Eastside to come and talk to students about staying safe on the street. I made a point of telling students this session was mandatory. They absolutely had to attend.

On the night of the session, I set up the expansive hall in UBC’s First Nations House of Learning by placing 30 chairs in a circle. I watched a few students trickle in and take seats. The police officer arrived. I was dismayed that only eleven students were in attendance. I made the circle smaller, did my best to cover my disappointment, and invited the speaker to begin.

I had asked the police officer to reassure students that the Downtown Eastside was not as dangerous as the media suggested. Instead, the officer began by telling stories of his most dangerous encounters on the street. I had asked him to make the point that people in the area were pretty much like everyone else and should be treated with respect, something the officer had a reputation for doing. But, from my point of view, his descriptions of people were dehumanizing. I had asked him to offer pointers on how to be street-smart, to suggest simple guidelines like, “Cross the street rather than walking into groups of people congregating on the sidewalk.” Instead he recommended that students call the police if they felt they were at risk. I became more and more grateful there were only eleven students in the room.

Adopting the Trek brand

Since my attempt to provide an effective safety orientation was not, in my view, hugely successful, I decided I had better check in with the students to see how they were doing. So I phoned all the students on the list of volunteers. I was reassured to hear that students had no concerns about their safety. In fact, they were very enthusiastic about how much fun they were having and how much they were learning. I was surprised and delighted to hear the students identify themselves as “Trek volunteers.” For example, students responding to my voice mail messages said, “Hi Margo, this is Andrea returning your call. I’m a Trek volunteer.” This was not a term I had used, but obviously my message at the introductory session about the link between UBC’s Trek 2000 vision and what students were doing in the Downtown Eastside had struck a chord. So I followed the students’ lead and the program became known as “The Trek Volunteer Program.”

Starting the Trek Program
Trek Program recruitment poster (Copyright UBC)

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Climbing Mount Everest.