History of Semester in Dialogue

Professor Mark Winston founded the Semester in Dialogue in part due to inspiration from the opening and subsequent activities of SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, a purpose-built physical venue for the university and community to host dialogue activities. 

Winston was interested in pushing the boundaries of traditional education to create deeper, experiential learning opportunities that would provide students with the inspiration and tools necessary to become active citizens. He also wanted to extend the traditional faculty/student relationship by providing more mentorship and individualized learning opportunities than were available to students in the regular classroom.

Development of the Semester in Dialogue was encouraged by a unique climate of educational reform at SFU beginning in 2000. Simon Fraser University has been known since its inception for its commitment to undergraduate education. However, like other institutions, has been challenged to fulfill this commitment in an era of technological and cultural changes—the rapid creation of new information, a larger and more diverse student body, and conflicting sets of expectations on the part of social and political institutions.

The program officially launched in fall 2002 with an initial focus on Nature, Environment and Society. At the time, a university committee was evaluating SFU’s undergraduate curriculum, and after extensive consultation published a report in 2003 recommending the introduction of breadth, quantitative and writing requirements for all undergraduate degree programs by 2006. These recommendations aligned closely with the Semester in Dialogue’s multidisciplinary nature and intensive focus on communication skills. The university viewed the semester as a signature program to signal its renewed commitment to a broad undergraduate education, and in 2006 expanded the program to run year-round with the addition of a second full-time faculty member, Dr. Janet Moore.

One of the most extraordinary experiences associated with the Semester in Dialogue is the truly interdisciplinary collaboration through which this novel teaching paradigm was developed. The program’s culture, dialogue-based approaches, learning strategies, and innovative assignments arose from an unusual interaction between university, community organizers and participants. The collaborating organizers during the formative years of the program have included an entomologist, economist, urban planner, physician, dancer, graduate student in education, music educator, negotiator/facilitator, former politician, sustainability researcher and an independent policy analyst—a compelling mix of university and community perspectives.

As the program has expanded from a single yearly offering to running three semesters each year, its focus areas on community engagement and experiential learning have become increasingly recognized as key strategic priorities within the university as a whole. Simon Fraser University’s 2012 strategic vision—to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university—formally articulated the value community engagement plays in the university’s mandate. Likewise, experiential education is listed as a key focus area in SFU’s 2013-2018 academic plan and was the subject of a stand-alone 2012 report.

In 2013, the Semester in Dialogue celebrated its 10th anniversary, having graduated 497 alumni and hosted 480 community Thought Leaders. Recent program innovations include a partnership with the City of Vancouver that provides dialogue students with the opportunity to work directly with city staff to implement Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 goals, and a university-wide program designed to spread the Semester in Dialogue’s teaching methods to capstone programs in faculties across Simon Fraser University. Sean Blenkinsop from the SFU Faculty of Education joined the Semester in Dialogue as third full-time faculty member in 2012 for a 5 year secondment. We were ecstatic to celebrate 20 years of Semester in Dialogue in 2023.