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This profile is part of a series exploring the impact of SFU Semester in Dialogue alumni on our local and global communities.

This question beleaguered Deanna Rogers and Jennifer McRae after their spring 2009 experience in the SFU Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue (UGSID) program and is what lead them to create The Change Lab[i], a highly innovative and engaging academic program now offered at Simon Fraser University.

Moving from Cape Breton, NS to Vancouver for love, Deanna Rogers, was never one to shy away from an opportunity to explore. Shortly after arriving, Rogers found herself sitting in on a few classes at SFU and this helped guide her decision on where to focus her undergraduate degree. Jennifer McRae, a Vancouverite, was influenced to attend SFU by her father, an alumni, and his friends. She’d heard many stories about the university while growing up making the decision to go to SFU a “no brainer”.

In 2009, with a limited understanding of what exactly UGSID entailed, and no previous experience with the discipline of dialogue, Rogers and McRae applied to the program. They both intuitively felt this opportunity was something they wanted to be a part of it. Rogers had recently moved to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Despite being well travelled, she had never seen a community like this one anywhere else in the world. She began investigating the history and issues of one of Canada’s most marginalized communities.

When she saw an UGSID poster at Club Days focused on the 2010 Olympics and related issues such as housing, she was instantly compelled to discover more about UGSID. McRae remembers hearing about UGSID years before she applied during an in-class visit from an alumnus of the program. She was intrigued, but didn’t feel the time was right for her. A few years later, she was deeply immersed in a year of self-directed engagement and was feeling overwhelmed by what felt like insurmountable issues. A friend, sympathetic to McRae’s desire to not only intellectually understand issues, but to influence change, reminded her about UGSID, encouraging her to apply. Both were ready to take their interests to a place of action.

The name of their UGSID course was “Designing the Future” and their cohort was filled with big dreamers and visionary thinkers like themselves. “There was a lot of magic that semester,” McRae recalls. While working on their final projects, Rogers was led to a summer job. She began consulting with Metro Vancouver, helping them pilot a Community Zero Waste project in the Strathcona neighborhood, riffing off her final project idea. This provided Rogers with great work experience and also a life-changing wake up call. She realized she could direct her efforts towards the issues that mattered to her while also getting paid to do it.

Similarly, McRae’s final project had her working with SFU Community Trust, looking at affordable housing, which also grew into a post-semester employment contract. Both of their experiences in UGSID were transformational and directly impacted the remainder of their undergraduate work. Returning to regular classes after their rich scholastic and work terms was a pronounced disappointment.

Rogers and McRae now saw themselves differently, no longer viewing themselves just as students, but also as valuable and marketable resources for the community. The divide between the classroom and the community that exists at most major learning institutions wasn’t obvious to them before, but now that they noticed it, it could not be ignored. “I think opportunity identification comes naturally to us,” McRae explained. “We see gaps and then we want to be able to make progress on them. We are excited, passionate and a little impatient, and so we tend to move fast and run ahead.”

They began asking themselves a lot of questions. Why was there a division between learning and doing? How do we break down that barrier? The search for the answer to these led them to their current work. After they completed the UGSID program, both Rogers and McRae continued to find projects at SFU that fueled their enthusiasm for experiential education (EE)[ii]. This culminated in a recommendation by Professor Mark Winston, the innovator behind UGSID and Fellow in the Centre for Dialogue, that they meet with Sarah Dench, SFU’s Director of University Curriculum and Institutional Liaison. Through this relationship, the Experiential Education Project was created.

Under the direction of Dench, Rogers and McRae undertook a substantial research project and in the spring 2012, produced a report on course-based experiential education across all SFU Faculties. The report highlights the strengths and opportunities at SFU, with regard to its course-based experiential education opportunities. As part of conducting this research, Rogers and McRae were meant to consult with SFU students to discover if experiential education was an option they wanted to have available in their undergraduate programs. However, after reviewing the SFU Institutional Research and Planning  Undergraduate Student Survey, it was apparent that students had already clearly indicated an interest in experiential education opportunities. For Rogers and McRae, the question became not if students wanted EE, but how.

True to form, their go-getter attitudes propelled them to, in conjunction with their research, pitch the idea of piloting an experimental education student directed cohort to SFU administration. The course would be one semester long, take up to 20 students who would each receive directed studies academic credit, and would be led by Rogers and McRae themselves, rather than an SFU professor. No one was more amazed than Rogers and McRae when the university said yes. While Rogers and McRae didn’t have a clear curriculum plan, they did have champions, mentors, and a clear vision of the goals for the class.

It was about bridging the disconnect between “university life” and “real life” and creating opportunities for students to receive academic credit for the work and research they were already doing in the community. It was about teaching real world skills, hearing from community guests and having open classes where students could engage in dialogue with peers and offer feedback on each other’s projects and goals. It was about empowerment over one’s education, and creating a supportive environment so students wouldn’t feel alone in their disparate interests and efforts to do valuable work.

The first student led cohort was a resounding success that left Rogers and McRae filled with inspiration. With their drive and refusal to accept the status quo, they took their original idea to the next level and developed The Change Lab. They designed the program to be spread over two semesters, and while keeping many of the prototype characteristics, focused more specifically on helping students learn how to move from idea to action, and the theory and practical skills necessary for them to be successful at doing so. The project idea was very well received. The more they talked about it, the more people wanted to get involved. Very quickly partnerships were in place with Sustainable SFU, the Faculty of Environment, CityStudio, SFU Sustainability, The Institute for Environmental Learning, The Vice President Academic’s Office and SFU Career Services.

Within six weeks a course curriculum following the Campus as a Living Lab[iii] protocol had been developed, and focused on advancing sustainability practices at the SFU campuses. Simply put, Change Lab mobilized students to get credit for doing things that matter and provided betterment for the campus and community, at the same time. Today, with Change Lab in its second iteration, McRae and Rogers have learned a lot about the interplay between the university and it’s communities and are able to identify some of the key barriers that if addressed, could help EE to move into more broad based curriculum at SFU.

One is time. EE demands a greater time commitment from both students and professors, as both need to be able to slow down enough to have the space to think more creatively and reflectively. Another is the ingrained institutional systems of academic credits and tenure. Rogers and McRae believe greater flexibility and creativity are needed in how recognition for both academics and students is awarded, such as thinking of things like internships, service learning and community based projects as worthy of academic credit towards degrees programs and that supervision of such projects and providing EE opportunities in courses should be viewed as tenure application worthy.

Ultimately, Rogers and McRae would like to hear that a lot more stories like theirs are being encouraged within the university. Students and academics have many great ideas that are not encouraged and supported, but if a culture of innovation and experimentation was created, the benefits would far outweigh the risks.

Rogers and McRae plan on continuing to challenge the university and themselves to be better and go deeper. They plan to stay motivated by remaining focused on the big picture and the relationships they’ve developed. Their work is about creating opportunities for students to find out who they are, what they care about, and to discover that they can make a difference.

Through the work of these two SFU alumni, it looks like SFU is charting the correct course in making a commitment to experiential education, a practice that benefits all the communities the university serves.

[i] The Change Lab is an interdisciplinary, experiential and cohort‐based class; encompasses instruction from both academic and non‐academic departments at SFU and comes in the form of guest speakers from our local community, SFU faculty lectures, mentorship and skills‐based workshops. Change Lab conceives of students as a fundamental resource and believes that by giving students the skills and experience in the program, they will not only be able to act as change agents at SFU, but also in the greater community for many years to come

[ii] “Experiential Education is the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical endeavors in a multitude of settings inside and outside of the classroom.”

[iii] “Living Labs are an emerging Public Private Partnership (PPP) concept in which firms, public authorities and citizens work together to create, prototype, validate and test new services, businesses, markets and technologies in real‐life contexts, such as cities, city regions, rural areas and collaborative virtual networks between public and private players. The real‐life and everyday life contexts will both stimulate and challenge research and development as public authorities and citizens will not only participate in, but also contribute to the whole innovation process.” (Veli‐Pekka Niitamo, Seija Kulkki,Mats Eriksson, & Karl A. Hribernik)