Memorial University of Newfoundland: undergraduate experience

Learning on the street

Service learning enriches Memorial’s undergraduate experience

What’s it like to be homeless? To have an addiction? Those are questions students at Memorial University of Newfoundland considered when they prepared and served a hot pasta lunch for over 75 community members experiencing poverty and later walked the streets of St. John’s, NL in simulated ‘barrier’ experiences as part of a unique Community Service Learning project.

About 50 students – one group of participants in Memorial’s larger Community Service Learning Day – focused on connection and conversation in providing a hot meal last October during the second Street Reach Community Lunch, a service project helping students learn about issues facing the most marginalized members of society.

“The experience was by far the most memorable and influential aspect of my semester and I would gladly participate again if given the chance,” says psychology student Laura Bonnell.

“Experiencing what was discussed in class first-hand changed my pre-existing views and cemented the information. It was extremely rewarding to be able to give back to my community and to connect with some of the people. It also inspired me to continue with volunteering in the area and it showed me the importance of philanthropy.”

Open to students in any discipline, the Street Reach project held particular interest for students in Dr. Lilly Walker’s fourth-year Psychology 4650 (Addictions) class. It comprised a significant academic component of their course including reflective and summary papers.

“The students learned so much. The Service Learning component added such richness to their experience,” says Dr. Walker. “Over and over again, they report how it changed their views of themselves, of others, of addictions, of people. It is so rewarding to read through their learning journey, to see what they discovered and learned.”

Street Reach volunteer coordinator Jenni MacPherson says experiences that bring people together can only lead to the promotion of equality by helping reduce barriers and eliminate stigma. “If we can change the way young people acknowledge homelessness, poverty addictions, mental health and use of social supports, that is going to carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

The experience provided many moments of awakening, says Penny Cofield, experiential learning coordinator with MUN’s Department of Career Development and Experiential Learning.

“To hear another’s story first-hand is a very powerful way to learn,” she says.

Service learning has been a valuable part of Memorial’s educational landscape since 2004. Through course projects and co-curricular volunteer opportunities, students have participated in service projects in areas such as food sustainability, seniors’ care, social justice, animal and humane services, and nature stewardship. The annual Community Service Learning Day offers various opportunities to get involved in service placements. And interest is growing all the time. Ms. Cofield says the department has had over 1,800 students participate since 2004.

“I think education is about the full development of the individual. I know I am not alone in that thinking. To provide opportunity to grow and be challenged and to expand their world (is so beneficial),” she says.

“It gives students a chance to reflect on the world in a different way, to see themselves in action, and to connect with people they wouldn’t otherwise connect with. It could also set them on another path they may not have considered before,” Ms. Cofield says.

“They get to see themselves in a whole new way, and that’s very powerful learning.”

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