Bringing Learning to Life

headerHow experiential learning is enriching the Trinity experience

By Cynthia Mcdonald

In summing up his education so far, Jonathan Chan likes to quote a well-known Chinese proverb: “It is better to travel ten thousand miles than read ten thousand books.” With degrees in history and (soon) immunology, Chan has certainly read his share of books. Last year, while completing a three-month internship in India, he was able to see the lessons contained within them brought sharply to life.

Chan spent the summer working in a New Delhi laboratory, under the auspices of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarship Programs (QE II). In 2015 only two Trinity students (out of six U of T students) participated in the program, which sends students in various disciplines abroad to study in Commonwealth countries (see Nota Bene in the Fall 2015 issue of Trinity for more on the program and one of its first participants). This year, that number has shot up to 17 (out of 28 U of T participants).

Enthusiasm for the QE II reflects the fact that international experience is becoming increasingly necessary in today’s globalized environment. When it comes to seeking that experience, Trinity students have long been in the vanguard.

The ways they do so are many and varied: some earn credits at universities that are partnered with U of T, while others complete research assignments with the G8 or G20 research groups. It’s not uncommon for students to spend the summer volunteering for non-profit organizations overseas, or to learn a new language on an exchange. There are also trips that are unique to the College—for example, the Divinity faculty’s biannual pilgrimage to Israel and Jordan. “We believe that going out in the world gives you a whole different type of experience,” says Dean of Arts Michael Ratcliffe, “one that is life-changing.”

Chan agrees whole-heartedly. As a researcher aspiring to a career in medicine, he found his experience at New Delhi’s National Institute of Immunology invaluable. “Working there gave me a whole different perspective on how research can be done,” he says. “Also, laboratories tend to have different focuses in different countries, depending on what kind of health issues are dominant in the country.” In Indian laboratories, he noticed, there is understandably a strong emphasis on curing infectious disease. In Canada, by contrast, autoimmune illnesses command more attention.

While in the region, Chan also participated in health promotion efforts and met the local people. “History can teach you about facts and policies, but not how people really live,” he says. “The feelings and emotions I got while there? No book could ever describe them in detail.” Back at U of T, he plans on studying Hindi as he wraps up his courses.

This year’s cohort of Trinity’s QE II immunology students have been sent to Kenya, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Scotland, India and Australia. They’re doing fieldwork in maternal and child health, participating in conferences, and enjoying unexpected side benefits—such as participant Shaan Bhambra’s invitation to have breakfast with Archbishop Desmond Tutu ’00 (Hon. D.D.).

Trinity takes its funding of those experiences seriously. The College has secured a university-leading $2 million for QE II scholarships over four years. This covers study in immunology, as well as a relatively new program that brings together the fields of International Relations, and Ethics, Society and Law: Establishing Right Relations, which seeks to explore relationships between indigenous and settler populations.

Last year, Victoria Wicks ’16 spent the summer at Ng a- Pae o te Maramatanga, a centre of research excellence based within New Zealand’s University of Auckland. It was an experience she calls “extremely transformative.”

While at Ng a- Pae, Wicks and fellow intern Madeline Dorland worked on research papers and helped with administrative and marketing duties at the centre. They also participated in festivities related to Matariki, the Maori new year, and watched a production of “Romeo and Juliet” performed entirely in te reo Maori, one of New Zealand’s official languages. “The really important part of what we did was to learn alongside indigenous scholars,” says Wicks. “I feel extremely lucky and grateful to have been placed with such generous hosts.”

Wicks expanded on her findings by enrolling in Trinity’s Community Partnership and Ethics course, through which students can participate in service work at home. “Having come back from New Zealand buzzing with all these things I did in the program, I was paired up with the Canadian Aboriginal AIDS Network. It was great to talk to the representatives there about my experience overseas, and find out about similar issues going on here.”
Setting up partnerships between Trinity and different centres across the Commonwealth has been a challenge. Interestingly, John Duncan (director of Trinity’s Ethics, Society and Law program) found that his own long-ago sojourn as an international student paid off here. “When I was in my late teens, I spent four months in Guyana with Canada World Youth,” he says. “Fortunately, I still have some contacts from those days that came in handy when we were researching placements for our students.”

Established in 1971, Canada World Youth is a non-profit agency dedicated to providing work experience for youth. Trinity’s goal extends beyond that, in that the College is bringing the worlds of work and education together. That’s the inspiration behind a new course on the College syllabus, TRN 307. “The vision of the 307 course was to complement the Queen Elizabeth scholarship,” says Ratcliffe. “But a number of our students who aren’t taking part in the QE II scholarships are also doing research and internships during the summer. This course will provide them with a mechanism for getting academic credit for those undertakings.” A second course, TRN 308, will allow students to share their experiences with community stakeholders. “It will be a hub for thought on these issues at Trinity,” says Duncan.

The QE II scholarships fund a 90-day commitment, but Trinity students routinely make shorter trips too. An example is the extraordinary work being done in the G8 and G20 research groups, led by John Kirton, Interim Director of Trinity’s International Relations Program. With a diverse array of backgrounds (trade policy, women’s issues, the environment and global health being but a few) students here conduct research and analysis while on-site at international summits. Trinity Chancellor Bill Graham first became acquainted with the groups while he was still a cabinet minister. As he said in a 2013 interview: “I used to go to those meetings, and it was amazing to see what the students were doing. Sometimes they were the only people getting reports and meeting heads of state.”

Many in the G8/G20 research groups have been affiliated with Trinity’s highly regarded International Relations program. It must be stressed, however, that students in all disciplines are encouraged to travel if possible. The College allocates $30,000 in each year’s budget toward travel expenses for students who have not received QE II scholarship funding, including those attending the G8/G20 summits. “We would love to be able to fund every opportunity, but at this point we can’t,” says Provost Mayo Moran. “What we really need is an international bursary program.” The value of such a program cannot be underestimated: travel costs, which vary from country to country, invariably add up. They include airfare, phone calls, health coverage, room and board, and in the case of study programs, tuition.

In June, the Ontario Government’s Highly Skilled Workforce Panel recommended that in future, every student be permitted access to experiential learning at university. And as global experience becomes more critical in the workplace, locating many of those experiences overseas simply makes sense.

“It’s a no-brainer,” says Duncan. “We can be looking at a variety of texts in class, and be pulled one way or another by the arguments in them. But when you meet the people who are involved with the issues, it’s really eye-opening. Right away they can tell you whether those theories work in practice or not. A little experiential learning goes a long way.”

That’s why these days, Trinity students are going a long way—both figuratively and literally. Recent Trinity graduate Kevin Deagle is now headed to Oxford, to study environmental change and management. It’s an academic direction he says he wouldn’t have selected, had he not travelled to a remote corner of Northern Australia to work under the guidance of a local indigenous agency as part of the QE II program. It’s a trip he calls the “formative moment” of his career to date.

The spirit of challenge is a major part of Trinity’s mission, and few things challenge a student more than travel. It’s an experience that builds confidence, cultural sensitivity, linguistic facility and basic life skills. It fosters connections and memories that can last forever. It is, if you will, a book that never ends.

Of his time in India, Jonathan Chan says: “I’d like to think I matured a lot, and grew as a person. I gave back to the community, yes. But I also developed myself.”


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