Panelists elicit hope for the future of university-community engagement

University speakers from across the continent unite to learn from one another about plans for community engagement after the pandemic

Photo courtesy of SFU Engage.

How are universities responding to the needs of students among the pandemic? How are universities ensuring they remain engaged with the community? These are just a couple of the questions that After the Pandemic: The Future of University-Community Engagement tried to answer.

The geographic range of the panelists mainly spanned Canada, with panelists from Vancouver, Calgary, and Ottawa, but also included a panelist from Ohio. Having this kind of regional diversity allowed for a variety of perspectives to nourish an understanding of complex issues. Each panelist had a unique background and approach to the topic of community engagement.

Hailing from the University of Calgary, senior director for strategic initiatives in community engagement Susan Mide Kiss touched upon a broad stroke of key issues. She emphasized the importance of the various organizations at the University of Calgary being open to learning from one another, and the wider university community. She reminded us of all the various challenges that students, staff, and other community members have been facing due to the pandemic. 

“Home offices were designed, we navigated how to take care of our young children, our teams, ourselves, professors and instructors had to learn how to deliver remote teaching and learning opportunities for thousands who were impacted. We [had] students who couldn’t get home, international students who were scared and away from their families.”

In addition to these factors were the precarious financial situations of many students, as well as an overburdening amount of stress. The event highlighted the importance of acknowledging these issues as they ultimately affect our ability to work, learn, and live no matter how much we try and push through them. Having someone such as Kiss validate issues that so many of us are still experiencing was an important step in the direction of cultivating a caring response to the pandemic. 

Kiss and her team offered online teaching tools and courses to help staff navigate the transition to remote learning. Kiss also discussed the strides taken for the financial stability of students, “We also secured $9 million in funding through the student work placement program [ . . . ] this is helping support [our] Calgary students through the country in paid work placements.”

Not only does this help students hone valuable job skills and monetary stability, but it helps stabilize the economy through supporting companies and organizations with financial support. 

From the Nisga’a and Kwakwaka’wakw Nations, Ginger Gosnell-Myers highlighted the importance of trying to find a “truthful narrative” in the COVID-19 pandemic and in the lives of Indigenous peoples in cities. How the story is told and whose voices are heard are very well going to influence the response at all levels. 

“Day lighting” truths is key to answering the larger question of what kind of country we want to live in. Essentially this means facing our storied history and acknowledging that our current situation is a direct result of this history. Honesty, acceptance, and responsibility are qualities that universities, governments (of all levels), corporations, and individuals should aspire for. These values collectively make up how we live and handle traumas on a daily basis. 

According to Gosnell-Myers, “Indigenous peoples really do see community engagement as a tool for self-determination.” Such dialogue should include answers to the questions of  “who you are now and where you are now.” 

This made me reflect on the necessity of valuing the input of Indigenous peoples and understanding their experiences. They are important knowledge holders who want to be heard, recognized, and appreciated, not to be “conveniently [ . . . ] erase[d]”  to fit the larger colonial identity. 

Namiko Kunimoto brought an insightful Japanese-American perspective to the discussion on community engagement. Sensationalized, American headlines bombard news media in Canada, and this leaves little room for local scale issues. Kunimoto pointed out challenges she faced within her department. 

“This [COVID-19 pandemic] really lays bare the disparities because for example, in my department [ . . . ] I am the only person with a child in the public school system. Many, many other faculty take their children elsewhere.” Since the issue of child care did not affect others in her department to the same extent, it was not exactly on the forefront of department challenges. 

As a researcher for the National Association of Friendship Centres , Gaelle Mushyirahamwe brought a very coherent opinion forward. She directly answered the panel questions presented with thorough and thoughtful input. 

Most prominently, she discussed the continued need for community engaged research that is conducted in a manner that is “ethical, consistent, and respectful.” Mushyirahamwe provided a clear cut list of tangible things that can be provided to communities at this time such as “securing funding [ . . . ] distributing protective personal gear, securing funding for tutors and laptops for remote learning.” 

Proper and thoughtful research methods, along with the necessary tools for learning, are essential for the people in university communities to thrive during and after the pandemic. In concert with Gosnell-Myers, Mushyirahamwe emphasized the importance of Indigenous communities being able to participate in community engagement processes in a way that is meaningful to them. While this point has been echoed time and time again, I’ve noticed it often falls through the cracks in the ivory towers. What is the point of community engagement that communities are not included in or cannot understand? More efforts to engage with Indigenous communities are necessary. 

Providing a perspective from Ottawa, Magda Goemans demonstrated a multi-faceted approach to COVID-19 issues in the university community. She discussed the knowledge-sharing university community that was an ongoing project. 

“We’re essentially fostering a process of social learning among community engaged peers.”  This went hand in hand with the importance of social learning that Kiss shared. Goemans’ ongoing project includes “regional scale discussions [ . . . ] cross Canada discussions,” and “post web workshop webinar and discussion sessions theories.” 

I believe such conversations would be effective if student feedback was heard and incorporated in a reasonable fashion. Goemans’ commitment to learning and growing from one another through the process of community engagement was an illuminating force of institutional support. 

Community engagement comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. From conducting academic research to hosting online workshops, there are many ways to learn and grow from one another. With the incorporation of student feedback, the future of university-community engagement will be in a good position going forward.