St. Stephen’s University announces new “Community Engagement” degree program

Submitted photo SSU students help to build community by taking turns cooking for each other.

St. Stephen – St. Stephen’s University (SSU) has for the majority of its existence focused on three different educational streams; International Studies, Psychology, and Humanities.

Starting in September of 2020, the university will begin offering a new degree program in “Community Engagement”. The impetus for the new degree has come from a period of soul searching for the school in which it has been trying to adapt to a world and a student body that is changing.

Originally founded as a Christian university, SSU has recently broadened its conceptual and spiritual foundations to include those who don’t consider themselves to be conventionally religious, and now describes itself as a place where students and faculty orient themselves towards “justice, beauty, and compassion.”

Stemming from this sea change happening in the university’s community, the school has identified that an explicit focus on local engagement and transformation has been a missing piece in their DNA.

Walter Thiessen, Dean of Arts, said, “For years, things have been plowing the ground for this change. One was adopting our mission statement and creating shifts in our approach to spirituality that made us more accessible to a broader range of students.”

“In spite of our not focusing on local transformation and engagement, our alumni have increasingly been doing that with many positive results for the town and the school,” he added.

Thiessen said the concrete changes future students can expect include an integration of the International Studies and the Community Engagement streams, both of which would have the goal of doing community engagement and development, with one leaning internationally and the other leaning locally.

In September a new course called “Community Development” will be offered which is intended to be the core of the new program and which will draw on local community members from the town planning and non-governmental resources in St. Stephen.

Additionally, new courses are being developed which emphasize the themes of community engagement and social innovation, which is a practise that focuses on the study and creation of new forms of economic and social spaces, with the acknowledgement that those systems need to be built with the understanding that people and planet are the most important assets that communities have.

This will come in the form of an “innovation core” of several courses focusing explicitly on community engagement as well as early plans for a unique interdisciplinary term, which is being patterned after British Columbia’s Simon Fraser Universities “semester in dialogue” which uses creative pedagogy to blend theory and practice while providing hands-on experience in a variety of critical thinking and collaborative skills.

Finally, the school intends to create an increased emphasis on various forms of “work-integrated learning” – practica, field ed, internships, co-op placements, and similar programs.

“We are thinking of calling it a Community Immersion term,” said Thiessen. “So the idea would be that during that term you would have a focused theme for what was trying to be accomplished.”

“There would be some element of problem based learning to it, where you’re asking, ‘how do we address a specific kind of issue that a community has?’ and you would spend part of that term diving into the theoretical stuff.

“We would then bring in key players from the community to the class and they present and you grill them, you engage with them, and brainstorm together – and then they leave and you process together, asking questions like, ‘what did we learn from that? What kind of research do we have to do in order to respond to it?’”

Thiessen notes the approach is very creative in the kinds of skills it builds in people, who will be learning not just how to mine information from books, but also how to mine information from people – the resources that already exist in this community.

He says it’s about teaching students how to interact and think critically about the issues going on in this community, and how to check into some of practical things going on already, trying to discover what is and what’s not working.

“One of the other things that we are talking about a lot,” adds Thiessen, “…is what we are calling the ‘inner transformation of the change maker.’ Which is basically, in the context of our educational goals, discovering how students are empowered to do this kind of work wherever they are.”

Thiessen said community immersion is a very important part of a student’s approach to a problem and how they think about it, and the school wants to better understand and facilitate the individual goals that enable students to transfer the experience of actively engaging in a community wherever they go after graduation. “That’s something we hope to be a strong outcome of this program,” he said.