Unleashing students’ creativity

One day in 2002 a colleague in UBC’s fund-raising unit called to tell me that the Learning Exchange had received a $1 million gift! An elderly couple who had attended UBC in the 1930s had indicated an interest in providing more than their usual modest annual donation to UBC. In response, the President sent the couple a proposal suggesting a $1 million gift be endowed in order to recognize students in the Trek Program who were demonstrating a commitment to service and a capacity for leadership. The donors decided to fund the proposal. It seemed like a miracle!

Awards for students

But the gift presented a problem. The idea was that the endowment revenue (at that time about $50,000 per year) would be used for cash awards for individual students in the Trek Program. This was a lot of money to give out. My fear was that this gift would be seen as giving a group of privileged young people money to come and volunteer among the poor. I could imagine the community’s response. “We told you! This whole initiative is just about UBC raising more money, money that should be going to us, not a bunch of spoiled rich kids!” I also feared that some students might be motivated to join the Trek Program only by the chance they might get one of these awards.

In order to avoid these kinds of reactions, I worked with UBC’s fundraising team and the donors to fine-tune the terms of the gift. The result was that we were allowed to use a proportion of the annual revenue to support the infrastructure of the Trek Program. In addition, a small amount was used to provide individual awards to exemplary student volunteers. The bulk of the remaining revenue was allocated to project awards that would enable students to do service projects in collaboration with a community organization or school. Students could apply for up to $10,000 to do a project during the summer when they were not attending classes. This use of the funds turned out to be an extremely effective way to engage students in amazingly creative projects, many of which had substantial impacts in the community.

Examples of summer projects

The first projects were done in the summer of 2002. These were the first in an ongoing series of innovative projects that showed us what students were capable of under the right conditions. Here are descriptions of some of the projects taken from the Learning Exchange website archive.

Computer Skills Training at the Dr. Peter Centre – Jordan Marr

Jordan did computer skills training with day program participants and residents at the Dr. Peter Centre, a centre that provides comfort care to people living with HIV/AIDS. The idea for his project was sparked during an earlier Reading Week project. Jordan facilitated ongoing computer skills training through the summer. He also designed learning modules and program materials so that other students in the Trek Program could continue teaching computer skills in the future.

“For a lot of people at the centre, their problems stem from having previously lacked a caring community environment to develop and live in. So the way to treat those problems is to provide that community. And that can only be done well when everyone involved recognizes that everyone has their unique experiences to contribute, and nobody is above anyone else.”

–Jordan Marr

YWCA Crabtree Social Venture Project – Larianna Brown

Crabtree Corner sign

In partnership with YWCA Crabtree Corner, Larianna worked to create a sustainable social enterprise to provide employment for mothers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.  Women from the Crabtree Corner Hot Lunch Program were brought together to form a cooking group that prepared healthy lunches for another YWCA organization, Emma’s Child Care Centre. The women from Crabtree were able to use their existing skills to develop a profitable business venture. This pilot project also provided women the opportunity to develop new skills that will assist them in future employment.

Larianna learned first-hand about cooperatively developing and implementing a community economic development initiative. She strengthened her research and proposal writing skills, as well as enhancing her communication skills. Here is part of what Larianna wrote in her report on the project.

“I’ve heard the quiet resolve in a woman’s voice when she tells me she has just put her name into a computer database system that will allow her five children, who have been in foster care since they were born, to finally contact her if they want to. I’ve seen the look of pride on a 56 year old woman’s face as she shyly confides in me that she’s gotten over 90% on every Math 11 test she’s  taken so far and that she’s going to finally get her high school diploma. The fact that I’m a vegetarian has been a great source of amusement to many Crabtree Comer kitchen volunteers and we’ve all laughed at how much I squirm when asked to prepare any kind of meat. I have also heard stories of drunken fathers and separated families and I’ve served women food who are so high they need help carrying their plate to the table. I’ve heard women yelling and swearing at their children and have had to tell hungry women that have waited in line for two hours to finally be served lunch, that we are out of food.

ln short, working at Crabtree Corner has made me feel more solidarity for the women of the Downtown Eastside. I am now painfully aware of the inadequate childcare, housing, and welfare regulations that govern this province and that appear to be aimed at keeping poor women poor. I am also more aware of the activities and initiatives that are underway in the Downtown Eastside to change these regulations and to provide alternative support to women, and I am driven to be more politically active in social issues affecting women in Vancouver.”

Grandview/?Uuqinak’uuh Elemetary Partnership Development – Christine Boyle

Christine spent the summer working on a project to develop strategies to strengthen the Grandview/?Uuqinak’uuh School and Trek Program partnership. She started by consulting with teachers, students, and parents about how the Trek Program could help with the enrichment of children’s school experience. The project resulted in the creation of a new administrative system for Trek volunteers that would enable a wider variety of after-school activities to be available to Grandview students in the future.

Christine Boyle at Grandview School garden
Christine Boyle at Grandview School garden

Here is part of what Christine said in her report on the project:

What did I learn?

What a fun question. What a feeling of accomplishment. l learned a lot. So let’s begin with the tangible.

At Grandview I learned about plants, weeds, and most frequently about insects. Working with the kindergarteners, we cut apart seeds and roots, bulbs and bugs. The inside is always more revealing. I also learned about the school system, about seniority and hierarchies. I learned about grant writing and funding struggles. l watched as teachers and teaching assistants interacted with students, and I learned tactics of firmness and discipline. Definitely not my strengths, but I improved. I learned about video editing from two grade seven boys from the outdoor education class. I learned about the First Nations Princess tradition, and the importance and responsibilities tied to it. I learned how to use an electric screw driver. I learned lots about Spiderman. I was reminded that even when I am not in school, I am still a student.

Working with the Learning Exchange provided its share of lessons as well. I learned about professionalism and about communication. I learned what’s most important to take down when keeping meeting minutes. I learned about funding struggles on a much different scale. I learned about making use of available resources, and about the willingness of people to help. I learned to accept the necessary PR stints as part of the greater goal. I gained a new respect for UBC’s President. I saw many powerful, inspired people doing poignant work.  And I am excited to be one of them again in September.

Above and beyond all of these lessons, I became rooted and I grew. This project took place during a difficult couple months in my life, and in a job that extends far past working hours it becomes difficult to separate the two. So many of my lessons bridged the gap between health, relationships, community gardening and community service administration. What a gap that can feel like, and what incredible bridges experience seems to form regardless.

Working within the public school system, during a provincial election, provided lessons in both opportunities and in limitations. I learned about school issues related to the election, about cutbacks and job loss, about vanishing programs and supplies. I also learned about working with what you have, and about the power of synergy to create more than you thought you could.

Working in an inner city setting, especially one as dynamic as Grandview, taught me about resilience, about persistence, about determination. Sharing blissful moments of dirt or glue or rain or dodge ball taught me about inner strength, about the uselessness of self-pity, and about the freedom of sincere joy.  I left feeling healed through an entirely unintentional process of exploration.

Working among such dedicated staff, both at Grandview and the Learning Exchange, reminded me of a line I used to cherish, and had too long ago forgotten. A memory of sitting in a boarding home in Guatemala City, amid a small group of students and human rights activists, hearing the incredible poet Julia Esquivel talk about the work of ants. About how we were ants. About how that’s what our world needed most. A memory of how much that meant to me then. And still.

Sir William Macdonald Elementary Introduction to Literature Project – Julie Ng

Julie’s project was an after-school reading club that paired primary grade children from Macdonald Elementary School with a reading buddy from Templeton Secondary School. The main goal of the project was to improve early literacy by getting young children reading and interested in literature at an early age. This project expanded the children’s thinking, while also connecting them to positive role models from high school. Julie learned how to follow a plan and show grace under pressure. She also gained a new appreciation for experiential learning.

  “I think it’s one thing to read about child psychology from a textbook, but it’s a completely different story when they are physically standing in front of you.  The textbooks can tell you nothing – you have to experience it for yourself.”

–Julie Ng

YWCA Crabtree Corner—Creative Writing workshops—Josie Mitchell

creative writingJosie introduced various genres, including poetry, fiction, and non-fiction to the women at Crabtree. Her workshops focused on female writers or writers who were connected to the Downtown Eastside. Josie brought in published authors who talked about their experiences as writers. The project culminated in a community event that launched a newsletter featuring the writing of workshop participants.

Creating the conditions for success

Offering students the chance to pursue an idea in collaboration with a community organization where they had been volunteering turned out to be a powerful way to unleash students’ creativity. But we learned pretty quickly that we could not assume that students had the requisite knowledge and skills to design and implement a project completely on their own. Many students were “keen but green.” They were excited about the opportunity to take some initiative. But being responsible for all the ins and outs of doing an entire project was a stretch for some. Many students were unfamiliar with the protocols of professional settings. For example, they did not know how to manage meetings with their community partners. Some had never been employed and did not understand some of the basics, e.g., you need to let people know if you cannot show up at the expected time.

We began offering workshops for students who had an idea they wanted to pursue. These workshops were intended to let the students know what we were looking for in their written project proposal. For example, we talked about the importance of their relationship with the community organization and the need to make decisions collaboratively rather than assuming an idea they had generated on their own was what the organization needed. We discussed the differences between charity, social justice, community development, and project-focused approaches to community work, reinforcing the messages we tried to convey to students when they joined the Trek Program. To hear the student who did the creative writing workshops at Crabtree, Josie Mitchell, talking about how her project started and how the workshop helped her think about her approach, click below.

“That was really fascinating to hear.”

We also gave students concrete tips on how to handle the logistics of the projects, e.g., how to develop a plan for their project, including formulating a realistic timeline and budget. We offered suggestions on how to conduct meetings, record key decisions, and monitor the progress of their project and their expenses. We also outlined our expectations around the required interim financial reports as well as the final project report.

These projects had important impacts on students. Click below to listen to Josie Mitchell telling me about how the project affected her thinking about her future career as a writer as well as her fears about undertaking the project.

“That was terrifying. . . . Why are they letting me do this?”

 “I knew I could do more. I wanted to do more.”

This award program was an example of our intentions around taking risks but doing so carefully. The Learning Exchange and our community partners knew we were taking a risk in offering such a significant amount of money and putting so few restrictions on what kind of project students could undertake. But we instituted a rigorous process to scrutinize and select projects. And we monitored the projects as they were unfolding, both formally and informally.

In some cases, the workshop that students attended, combined with previous work and other experience, was enough to enable the student to take the ball and run with it, straight down the field and across the goal line. In other cases, the Trek staff and/or the community partners had to provide some coaching and mentoring along the way. But, overall, the student summer projects were enormously successful. We trusted students to make good on their proposed ideas and they met or exceeded our expectations. Students rose to the challenge of being responsible for producing something of value.

In fact, I was surprised at how committed and responsible the students were. The $10,000 upper limit for the project award was intended to allow students to receive a stipend that would be roughly equivalent to paid employment over the summer. But very rarely did students even ask for any remuneration for themselves. Most projects were done on a shoestring. But, as the examples given above show, the results were impressive. Community organizations received important benefits, sometimes including tangible, lasting additions to their infrastructure or programs. And as the comments from students show, they learned important lessons about life, work, and themselves.

For the next chapter in The Learning Exchange Story go to Binners on campus.