SSU students to learn about community engagement as part of new fall curriculum

ST. STEPHEN – St. Stephen’s University (SSU) has always had a focus on helping students determine their place in the world, as well as help them to develop skills that will help them change the world for the better. The courses at the university have always had a focus on the liberal arts, along with studying abroad, and now SSU wants to add a focus on the issues right here in Charlotte County.

St. Stephen’s President and Chief Academic Officer Margaret Anne Smith said the university is planning a “more deliberate engagement with and appreciation of our surrounding community”, in the form of a new Community Engagement program being launched this fall. Smith said SSU has brought in Hannah Main, who is currently finishing her PhD in Sociology at Dalhousie University in Halifax to head-up the program.

“We have a new director, and her title is director of community engagement,” said Smith. “We have, in 45 years, had a focus on the liberal arts and on study abroad. We’ve brought students from all over the place to New Brunswick, and then we’ve taken them to Europe, and we’ve taken them to Asia.

“Now we really want to add a third piece to the program, and that is to look to Charlotte County. We want to develop an academic program that will let students study the people, the opportunities, and the challenges here in Southern New Brunswick and in Atlantic Canada.”

Smith said Main originally hails from “small-town Nova Scotia”, and she and the other faculty and staff at SSU are excited to have Maine bring her expertise and experience to the area. Smith said there were many applications from the U.S., Ontario, and other areas, but they ultimately chose to bring in someone who is from Atlantic Canada.

“We really like the idea of a Maritimer, working with Maritime people in a Maritime area,” said Smith.

Smith said this program will allow students to “take more notice of what is unique in N.B.”, and help them to learn more about the “people, opportunities, and challenges” in the area, as well as throughout Atlantic Canada. The hope is students will be able to put their new ideas to work here in Charlotte County as well as in their own regions, and that they will leave the program with a better understanding of what makes New Brunswick communities what they are.

“We are wondering about classic Atlantic Canadian challenges, population, out-migration, people going to Toronto – they’ve been doing that for generations,” said Smith. “How do we create healthy, vibrant communities here, or how do we help communities stay healthy and vibrant.

“We, as a group of faculty and staff, are really people from across the country. People have come across Canada to live and work in St. Stephen at the university, and we love it. We think it’s an amazing community, and we’d like to showcase some of that for our students.”

The community engagement program will be partly academic, and partly “experiential learning opportunities”. Students will be able to volunteer with community organizations in exchange for academic credit. Over the past year, Smith has been in communication with 18 agencies and non-profits in the region, and said these organizations have expressed an interest in the program and have many possible ideas for how the students’ skills can be utilized.

The highlights of the program include a focus on internal growth and hands-on experience, along with academic learning, a short trip to an area in the Maritimes or a series of field trips that will allow students to experience and explore vibrant communities, and interdisciplinary team teaching for students to learn from faculty, guests, and community partners. The program will involve a service learning project and/or internship with a community partner, project-based learning for individual students and/or small groups of students, and a chance to gain hands-on volunteer experience to gain new and practical skills.

Smith said the students have good research skills, along with good communication skills which they can bring to the table. But, not only will the students be helping the community, they will also be learning from the work they do with various organizations.

“We hope it’s a chance for our students to learn from the great work that’s being done in the region, but we also hope our students are able to give some of their youthful energy and labour to local organizations that are typically short staffed. Most groups could use a volunteer,” said Smith.

This new program will be a four-year Bachelor of Arts in Community Engagement, along with psychology and the humanities. Students will be able to earn a certificate in Community Engagement as part of their BA studies. In addition to this being part of the BA curriculum, there will also be opportunities for anyone who is interested to earn a certificate in Community Engagement over a four-month period of study. There will also be an eight-month program that combines the four-month fall program with a winter term of coursework, along with an internship in the community or at the university.

Smith said they are currently working on a bursary/scholarship program for the upcoming fall term. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has made people unsure of what the future will bring, and this is an opportunity for them to try a short-term “return to school or a short-term try university”. Anyone can apply for this certificate program, and Smith added that there are some people in the area who are interested in funding locals to take the program.

“We want our students to learn from the past and the present, and look to the future,” said Smith. “We want them to grapple with big ideas, learn to ask the important questions, gain practical skills, discover healthy practices, cultivate hope, and identify what needs to be changed in the world. We want our students to be citizens of the world and citizens of the neighbourhood, and to bring their passion, their energy, their curiosity, and their skills to help us all face the future together.”