Photo credit: Martin Gregus Jr

Students, International Studies

Undergraduate Profile: Sarah Duggan, International Studies

March 08, 2017

Not all undergraduate students know what their major will be when they enter university. That wasn’t true for Sarah Duggan, who became interested in international aid when she was in high school through her involvement in a humanitarian organization in Mexico called Live Different. She also attended workshops through Red Cross programs on global issues and international aid. Some of her mentors in those workshops were International Studies students at SFU, and their tales of positive experiences piqued her interest. When it came time to choose her university, Duggan chose SFU and International Studies.

Though Duggan chose her major early, she says she did so with an open mind, thinking her major might still change. But the more she learned, the more she appreciated its openness: “Something I really value about International Studies is the ability to take courses from a really wide range of disciplines. [It] has given me the flexibility to learn about a wide range of topics from human rights to economics to environmental sustainability.”

International Studies also introduced her to the value of experiential learning. “In the second semester of second year,” Duggan recounts,” I took a course where the assignments involved going into the community and talking to people.” The course was International Studies 319: Ethics and Methods of Qualitative Research with Shayna Plaut. In it, Duggan worked with other students to write a grant proposal for a local organization. She says this challenged her to “create meaningful relationships, build trust and learn how to listen.” The challenge was “to write for another party in a way [that party] would write for themselves, and of course how to take feedback and work through many revisions.”  For another assignment Duggan interviewed people who had connections to agricultural workers in BC, and she wrote an article, “Invisible People: The Rights of ‘Temporary Foreign Workers’,” which was later published on the blog Praxis Centre.

Duggan says her experience in the course is “the absolute highlight” of her degree because “instead of simply reading about the methods we had the opportunity to try them out for ourselves.” This carried forward into her semester in CityStudio, a program where students, faculty, and municipal staff collaborate for the City of Vancouver. Duggan’s work addressed the redesign of the North East False Creek area: she, along with her cohort, conducted research about what area-residents wanted in the redevelopment and, in a smaller group, created an experiential installation in order to promote sustainability and safe transportation choices.

A rider travels along Illumilane. Photo credit: Sarah Duggan.

In their first project, called “You Write We Listen,” the cohort built a temporary sculpture that invited passersby to share their opinions by responding to three writing prompts. Their second project saw Duggan, along with a smaller group, partner with the experiential design studio Hfour to design an interactive illuminated bike lane. “IllumiLane” lights up as a rider travels through it, flashing different colours and patterns according to their speed. As Duggan explains, “our objectives were to integrate light and art into active transportation and promote walking and cycling as fun, safe and practical transportation choices, even at night.”

The project launched as a temporary installation for one night and garnered positive feedback. Duggan considers it “a huge success” and says Hfour is currently discussing potential options for future installations of IllumiLane with the City of Vancouver. Whatever its future, the learning experience was a lasting one for Duggan: “Working through these projects was always a mix of backward and forward steps. Some of the most important lessons I learned were about communication and relationships … [Shayna Plaut’s] course really challenged the way I thought about how a course could be structured and how engaged I could feel. By following this with City Studio, my education took a complete turn towards experiential learning. On top of being more engaged I have found that I am also learning a wider range of skills.”

Duggan (fourth from left) and her CityStudio team with a piece of lighting from Illumilane. Photo: submitted.

Experiential learning figures so prominently in Duggan’s education that she wrote an Op-Ed published in 2016 in the Vancouver Sun. In “Being Engaged in School Shouldn’t Cost Money,” Duggan argues for equal, and earlier, access to experiential learning across all levels of education, but particularly in the elementary school years. Citing a stay at the North Vancouver Outdoor School, now the Cheakamus Centre, Duggan recalls “I learned about conservation, sustainability and ecosystems by living and learning within those systems. Some of the most influential and engaging learning I have been exposed to was when I was immersed in another experience.”

Over the next year Duggan is immersing herself in an exchange at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, where she will take courses in Maori education, Geography, and Development Studies. Reflecting on what she hopes to gain from these experiences, Duggan says “Going to Auckland will let me broaden the scope of my learning by being in another country and taking classes with a new group of students. Since New Zealand may have some similarities to Canada I will have the opportunity to connect and apply my experience there back to my life and my studies when I come home.”

Learning through doing, for Duggan, also involves engagement, and re-examining experiences and knowledge: “I also would like to learn how New Zealand fits into the global world and how Canada is perceived from other places in the world. I hope to be able to apply these by being more inquisitive in my studies and learn to question some of the things I have come to see as truths in Canada.”

She offers the following advice to other undergraduates: “I happened to choose a program at the beginning of my degree and stick with it but not everyone will do that and it’s definitely ok to change your mind if you find something you’re more passionate about. I took a really wide range of courses in my first couple semesters to see what else was interesting. I also recommend you take advantage of every opportunity to do things outside of the typical formal education system.”


To find out more about experiential learning opportunities that consider similar themes, check out FASS Canada 150 courses, specifically FASS 150, 250, and 350, which include practical education components as well as the opportunity to earn credits through collaboration with community partners.