Semester in Dialogue: A Reflection

February 05, 2024
Shari Virjee-Tañada

Shari Virjee-Tañada shares her reflections and experiences as the 2023 Semester in Dialogue Program Coordinator.

Tell me a little about yourself, and what interested you in becoming the program coordinator for the 2023 Semester in Dialogue: The Future of Health-care?

I was working as Strategist: Justice, Equity, and Inclusion within SFU’s Work Integrated Learning and when our team had to disband due the end of project funding, I found myself exploring other ways to promote applied, experiential learning and meaningful professional development, which I am passionate about.

As an advocate of social justice and transformational change, I have always been curious about the work of the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. When I heard about their Semester in Dialogue and the opening as program coordinator, I was immediately drawn.

Can you describe your experience coordinating the 2023 Semester in Dialogue program, what specific strategies did you employ to ensure the success of this program?

The Semester in Dialogue was on hold for a little over a year. During that time, the curriculum was redesigned, in part to invite a more diverse range of students to the program.

As a team, our open lines of communication and making ourselves available to one another were among the strategies we used to ensure success. Creative thinking, patience, flexibility and empathy also went a long way towards achieving various elements of program success, from cohesion in the classroom to a transformational learning experience for all. These strategies were also imparted to the students, who each had the opportunity to host and facilitate dialogues with community.

Anticipating a thoughtful, interdisciplinary cohort of students, we added perspectives and insights from a wide array of practitioners, artful visionaries and social justice advocates whose work and purpose intersect current health-care system challenges. Among them were:

  • Dr. Diane Finegood, instructor for the Semester in Dialogue: The Future of Health-care
  • Andre Picard, health-care columnist at the Globe and Mail
  • Roger and Sarah Strasser, interim Deans of the proposed new SFU Medical School
  • Libby Davies, former MLA for Vancouver Downtown Eastside
  • Max Wyman, author of The Compassionate Imagination (2023)
  • Dr. Brenda Morrison, Director of the Centre for Restorative Justice at SFU
  • Dr. Tahmeena Ali, President of BC Family of Doctors
  • And easily two dozen others from the health-care industry, government and SFU.

How did you go about planning and executing the various components of the program, such as curriculum development, logistics, and student engagement activities?

The Semester in Dialogue is a pivotal learning experience for its graduates and the learning isn’t limited to the classroom—though the space certainly hosts transformative conversations when participants bring their experiences and ideas to it. Some students come to the program hungry for extra opportunities to get involved in passion areas, or are seeking new and different experiences.

With the plethora of events and activities in and around SFU’s Vancouver campus, alongside webinars, paid and volunteer gigs, I created a section in Canvas simply titled “Opportunities” and regularly added a page for each event, application or learning opportunity that I thought might resonate with or be of interest to the group. From social media ambassadors with the Centre, to becoming a board member with a national organization aligned with the Centre’s work, to attending the Award celebration of Michelle Luongo at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue across the street, it was a busy (and fulfilling!) semester. I also coordinated two committees for two awards, which led to the Centre awarding a total of $4,190 to three students, which helped to offset the costs of full-time study.

I’m also grateful to have had the chance to explore and engage a few students in SFU Department of Philosophy's Ethics Bowl in November. The Ethics Bowl is the kind of event that exposes the foundations of not just the Semester in Dialogue, but the Centre for Dialogue itself—where we collaborate in community to solve the complex (not just complicated) challenges of our time.

What has been the most enriching part of working so closely with these students?

The most enriching part of working with the students was getting to know them and hearing how the program is impacting them—the learning journey. Being seen as someone they can trust and reach out to in times of personal conflict or to celebrate success meant a lot to me.

Managing diverse groups of students can be challenging. How do you ensure inclusivity and address the needs of a diverse cohort? Can you share an example of how you promoted inclusivity in this program?

We established inclusivity early on with our introductions and housekeeping rules. It was embedded into the program’s curriculum, and because of the emphasis on this even from the interviewing stage and the kind of bursaries/awards on offer, the students were encouraged to embed equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) into their approach towards assignments and facilitation.

As an example, desiring to establish a classroom atmosphere that downplayed power imbalances in favour of EDI, the class co-created meaning when asked to come up with a new, decolonized term to refer to those who joined their space in dialogue. Honoured participant was imbued with far more equity, inclusion and belonging than the traditionally used “guest speaker” or “thought leader”. Seeing students embed EDI approaches into daily activity and changing auto-pilot thinking by making time to reflect felt like a measure of success.

What is your approach to fostering a sense of community and teamwork among students in your programs? Can you provide an example of a successful team-building initiative you implemented or supported?

The ethic of teamwork and “a community of care” is established very early on, through the design of the curriculum. One component of this is an overnight retreat that we arrange in a natural setting, and all students are strongly encouraged to join. In that environment, students got to know one another personally, shared a meal and made social connections. All of this continued upon return to the classroom, where daily dialogues set in community, paired facilitation assignments and group projects are standard fare—and this group’s potlucks were amazing!

The student-hosted final public dialogue held at the end of November, was a feat of teamwork. Having a full cohort to lend a hand towards a common goal was a phenomenal resource and the results were apparent. It was a joy to assist them with the nitty-gritty, as well as to witness their passion and growth through the process of project management and facilitation planning. What a successful event!

As you wrap up a Semester in Dialogue, how do you ensure a smooth transition and provide closure for participants? How do you measure the overall impact of the program on the students involved?

The students put a lot of hard work into creating a final public dialogue report and infographic, which are both publicly accessible. There are also curricular activities that help with this closure, such as the final reflection presentations where creativity and artistry are encouraged. Furthermore, a WhatsApp chat with students, the instructor and myself, allowed us to keep in touch and share information as the semester wrapped up and even into the new year. The relational emphasis in the Semester in Dialogue is something students say is different from their other academic interactions, and as a result it can be both refreshing and challenging.

Overall, the bonds created among the students will have a sustained impact. I envision some lifelong friendships and the possibility of forging professional partnerships with one another in the future.

Final thoughts?

This is one of the most unique learning opportunities on campus and I’m hopeful there will be another! I’m grateful to have been a part of it. The physical space breathes the magic of the forerunners of the program, including its founder, Mark Winston, who graciously offered his expertise as a writing mentor to the smaller group of students who took on the challenge of writing a publishable piece for extra credits. One of the first to be published was an op-ed by Devin McRae about his family’s experience being left by the health-care wayside.

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