In winter 2013, Sarah Brown, a first year joint honours student in psychology and linguistics, took a women’s studies course with Professor Corrie Scott. The course, Women, Gender, Feminism: An Introduction (FEM1100 C), offered a Community Service Learning (CSL) option.
Scott chose to offer CSL in her classroom because “volunteering with a community organization allows students to turn theory studied in the classroom into practical, concrete solutions for problems in our own communities. It has also been very empowering for many of my students. Every year, students tell me that their volunteer experience was life-changing.” She gives the example of a group of students who volunteered with the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization conducting focus groups to determine if new immigrant women had unmet needs. “Many of the student volunteers were also new to Canada and found the experience helped them feel more confident about speaking English in public. Several students continued to volunteer well after our class was finished and all of the students said it helped them feel like they were a part of a community,” says Scott.
For her course, Sarah chose to volunteer as a women’s activity facilitator with Interval House of Ottawa, a shelter for about 100 abused women and 150 children. We interviewed Sarah in early June to hear more about her experience.
CGCE: In your classroom, you chose to take the Community Service Learning placement at Interval House instead of the other assignment. Tell us why you chose that option.
Sarah: While I was in Corrie Scott’s FEM1100 C I chose to participate in the CSL placement. I chose this option instead of the final project because it provided me with a realistic, hands-on experience. I knew I would be experiencing real-life scenarios rather than theory from the textbook, or reading about another person’s experiences.
CGCE: What were your key responsibilities?
Sarah: My responsibilities included taking part in the children’s program that operated daily. The children’s program was the most rewarding part of my volunteering experience. I was able to hold and comfort babies, as well as participate in engaging activities with toddlers and children to make their time in the shelter as relaxing as it could be.
CGCE: How did this placement help you better understand the course content?
Sarah: Throughout the semester I volunteered 32 hours. The placement exceeded my expectations for a number of reasons. Not only was I able to volunteer as if I was an employee, but I was welcomed as if I was a part of the family. Having my own personal experiences and relationships personalized the theories and materials we covered in the course.
CGCE: What were the highlights or key learning moments of this placement?
Sarah: One of the highlights of volunteering at the shelter was walking in and seeing the children and mothers happy to see you. It was rewarding to have the children run and hug you in excitement, or to see them remember how to build the structures you taught them in previous visits. Gaining the women’s trust and seeing the families warm up to you was heartwarming and always reinforced how important you can be in the healing process for some people.
CGCE: Now that you have time to reflect on your placement, what was the key learning?
Sarah: I think the most eye-opening moments I had were learning some of the women’s stories after spending some time with them. Once you understood their backgrounds and previous lives it became clear that the issues they were facing can happen to anyone. For my specific example I got to see just how the system is damaging and how society oppresses them. It made me compare the situations I witnessed at the shelter to situations with people in my life, and apply my knowledge I picked up from the women and staff to isolate situations that are typically red flags. Because of my opportunities I am equipped with the tools to provide the best advice and plans to those I feel need it.
CGCE: What would you say to a student who is not sure whether he or she wants to try volunteering as part of his or her class?
Sarah: It was one of the most rewarding and proud moments of my life. I would tell him or her that it is not always going to be a cheery and positive journey. Sometimes it will be emotional, and sometimes you will feel much too tired to dedicate your time to other people. However, once you step back and reflect on your time spent, you will feel good about lives you have touched. From then on, you will take a piece of those you have met and helped everywhere you go. If you choose to volunteer you have created your own unique textbook, with personal experiences, theories and emotions. You may not always remember every aspect of all your final projects or papers, but I promise you will never forget about the time you spent volunteering.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sarah. Wishing you a great start to the new academic year!