Education Grounded in Community Engagement

By Faculty Blog, Uncategorized No Comments

St. Stephen’s University has always focused on helping students understand their place in the world, and develop skills to help change the world for the better.  Committed to values of justice, beauty and compassion, we encourage our students to engage with the world around them: with an understanding of the past, compassion for all people, and an appreciation for beauty, we want our students to cultivate and create justice, compassion, and beauty, wherever they go and in whatever they do after graduation. 

Historically, our focus has been the liberal arts, and six terms of academic study have been complemented by two terms abroad, in which students have travelled with faculty and staff, explored cultures and places, met new people, and developed new understandings and competencies.

Now, we are adding a new and important dimension to our life together as a university: a more deliberate engagement with and appreciation of our surrounding community.  Our own lived community is profoundly grounded in our physical environment: the heart of our unique campus is Park Hall, built in 1867 for the family of a shipbuilder.  The original staircase still stands, hewn from black walnut and built by New Brunswick hands.  The wing which is now a student residence was built for immigrant workers at the Ganong Bros. chocolate factory, people who—like many of us—came to NB and made it home.



The rhythm of our academic life together can be charted by the seasons, so influenced by our location on the St Croix River, an estuary of the powerful Bay of Fundy tides. As we look back over our 45 year history, we grow deeper roots in our region, and realize it is time to engage more deeply here in our community.  We are proud that so many of our graduates have chosen to claim southern NB as home for their families and careers, and celebrate the many connections we have within the social fabric of St. Stephen and the surrounding areas. 

 It is time to be more intentional about who we are and where we live: we are proud to launch a program in community engagement.  From a new first-year course, to internships and experiential education opportunities, to expanded course offerings in community engagement in 2021, we will take more notice of what is unique in NB, and develop an academic program that will equip students to study the people, opportunities and challenges here in southern New Brunswick and Atlantic Canada, with the hopes that students can put new and applicable ideas to work here, and in their own regions, with better understandings of the historical patterns, stories, social demographics, resources, and environments that make our communities what they are.

 “Engagement is Our Natural State”


The current pandemic has thrown so many truths into sharp relief: disparities between rich and poor are heightened; desperate shortfalls in social services and healthcare are revealed; our human needs for connectedness, purpose and hope are more evident than ever. Engagement is our natural state, as people come together—virtually, and in so many creative ways—to interact with and support one another. 

We want our students—passionate, curious, empathetic—to learn from the past and the present, and look to the future: 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 think the best way to do this is by expanding our definition of “academic study” to include community engagement. 

Academics with Action


We can’t fix the world’s problems simply through book learning. But thoughtful academic study can be paired with engaging our communities: through partnerships with community organizations, through volunteer opportunities, through work on community projects, through applying research to solve community problems, through connecting with community leaders, through mentorships with activists, and through listening to local people talk about their needs and desires, our students can discover new opportunities, and find new ways to use their education to make our communities healthier, more inclusive, and stronger.  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.



riots and contemplation

By Faculty Blog, Walter Thiessen No Comments

*This blog was originally shared June 2, 2020 on Dr. Thiessen’s blog. The original format has been adapted.*


This summer, I am researching and writing about contemplation and healing. I am also reading, this past week, about rioting across the US.

One phrase that has been grounding my thinking about contemplation and healing is that the connection between the two is about our need for a “compassionate consent to reality.”

There can never be wholeness without an honest facing of what is and an honest acceptance of our emotional/bodily response to what is. A compassionate consent to reality in this season of riots might begin with seeing the truth of George Floyd’s death, which, as I saw it involved a casual and utter disdain of an African American man’s life and suffering, the enjoyment that a white policeman with a  history of violence took in his power over this man, and the carelessness (pride?) in doing this in front of many witnesses.

Consenting to reality means seeing that this is not a unique act, as we would wish and hope it to be, but a visible reminder of what happens with an insane frequency. Consenting to reality means we remind ourselves that the Derek Chauvins are all around (certainly not only in the US) and that many pieces of what made his actions possible are sprinkled throughout our own spirits.

“Contemplation reminds us that to let ourselves truly see these realities and be affected by them,

we need to breathe and be intentional and be silent.”


Contemplation reminds us that to let ourselves truly see these realities and be affected by them, we need to breathe and be intentional and be silent. We need not to look away as quickly as we’d like. We need to know that we can tolerate all the feelings in us that come in response. We see and feel the rage along with the fear of our own rage and the rage of others. We recognize the frustration and shame at our feelings of powerlessness.

We breathe again. We feel that part of ourselves that wants so desperately to look away and to simply wish for a peace that buries these facts. We let ourselves hear that question whispered in our spirit, “What would we feel if we were African Americans living in the midst of this ongoing threat?” We consent to facing the reality of our weakness and temptation.

We breathe again.

What makes this contemplative courage possible (when it is possible), for many of us, is our experience that the same open-eyed, open-eared consent to painful realities also includes the reality of God’s loving presence with us. That loving presence is/was also present with George Floyd and with Derek Chauvin. We are not separate from either of them – God’s presence draws all of us together.

Consent to the Reality of Hope


It is also just as important to consent to the reality of hope. We see the passionate determination of neighbourhood leaders of all races standing together to care for each other, feeding each other, bearing courageous witness by facing up to those trying to incite more violence, trying to exploit the honest rage of the marginalized for demonic purposes. When I feel hate for those Proud Boys and Bugaloo Boys and Donald Trump, I remember that there are some among those on the front lines, experiencing more directly than I can imagine, the direct consequences of the evil around them, that are somehow able to respond with a spirit-empowered grace and forgiveness, AND to stand up and protest.

I remember that when seen apart from the mobs and the narrative posing, there are individual human beings whose life stories have led them to where they are. I see police chiefs and many ordinary white police officers, with long and complex work histories, with many experiences of fear on the job, with many friends and colleagues just like Derek Chauvin, choosing to kneel and ask for forgiveness. What has been at work to make this possible?

Lament is a necessary part of contemplation in seasons like this. How can I consent to realities like this without expressing the pain? Lament can enable the paradoxical coming to peace with our rage and shame, without immediately squelching the rage and shame. As I lament, I accept and rest while the pain and weakness are still very present, knowing that God hears my cries and feels them.

“Contemplation is the Best Foundation for Action”


Finally, there is action. I very much believe that contemplation is the best foundation for action. Certainly, contemplation is not an alternative to action, but the means by which we best discern the incredibly challenging questions of what I can now, must now, do. This includes the way that contemplation enables and shapes our participation in communal discernment about what we do together. May these conversations flourish in the days ahead.

For more from Dr. Walter Thiessen, visit:

Language Learning and Community Engagement

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During the study abroad programs in South East Asia and Europe, our students here at SSU interact with linguistic and cultural communities vastly different from their own. They have opportunities to learn and practice foreign languages, which can sometimes be fun, and sometimes trigger the performance anxiety that many of us have experienced in similar situations. When we are learning to speak a foreign language, we often feel catapulted back into childhood, as we forego mastery of our mother tongue, and instead find ourselves stumbling for words and feeling a little foolish. But if we focus too hard on trying to “get it right” or judge ourselves for “getting it wrong” we often miss the beautiful, living exchange that is underway as we attempt to communicate.

In fact, grasping the idea of language as a mutual exchange can really alleviate potential performance anxiety around language learning. It is also an idea that I think is worth exploring as a metaphor for the kind of attitudes with which we can approach the developing Community Engagement aspect of our academic program.

So what exactly does it mean for language to be a mutual exchange?

In a TedX talk about hacking language learning, linguist Dr Conor Quinn emphasizes that “we make meaning together” and that we therefore need to “[learn] to lean on the other person’s full and complete knowledge of the language and even more on their willingness to help [us] make this conversation happen.” Indeed, among the characteristics of human language that are commonly agreed upon as distinct in comparison to animal communication, one is that of Joint Attention.

“Meat from a Cow”

While some animals, especially apes, demonstrate certain elements of joint attention (such as looking at the same thing and even being aware of looking at the same thing), they don’t appear to cooperate in the complicated way that humans can. In the communicative act, humans demonstrate remarkable shared intentionality as they work together as a team, needing to “read each other’s minds” in order to identify another’s goals, and thus be able to help them achieve those goals.

So when, in Barcelona as a leader on the 2017 Europe study abroad program, I used my limited Spanish to try to ask for ground beef in a supermarket – “Meat from a cow. Very small. Like a hamburger but not together!“ – the woman behind the meat counter really gave this communicative event her full attention, and after much laughter and many hand gestures, she ended up figuring it out and grinding me up some steak! From my “imperfect” effort at communication, and with her willing cooperation, I gained a linguistic success, the ability to make taco salad, and a special experience of human connection.

It is an incredible part of being human that we are constantly employing such complicated forms of teamwork to communicate with each other, whether in our own language or a foreign one. Though we’re aware that it is debatable whether we always truly understand each other, we nevertheless do often manage to arrive at shared meaning, and even get some things done together!

“The Mutuality of Language Can Teach Us”

As a metaphor for the way we approach Community Engagement as a university, the mutuality of language can teach us some important things. In our discussions as faculty about Community Engagement we have regularly mentioned the importance of mutuality in student opportunities to engage with the wider community. We and many of our students desire to serve our town and region in positive ways and not be stuck in an “ivory tower,” but we are also very aware of not wanting to pretend to be the saviours or to have all the answers. We hope that Community Engagement will have a component of mutuality at its core, where our students are useful and make real contributions, and are also consciously aware of being learners, approaching the whole enterprise with a good deal of humility, so that both parties in any interaction come away with benefit, learning, and connection.

To return to Dr Quinn’s words, “we make meaning together” and this involves “learning to lean on the other person’s full and complete knowledge of the language and even more on their willingness to help you make this conversation happen.”  Community partners will in some senses speak a language that our students do not yet know – the language of, for example, a particular industry, company, or not-for-profit. I hope that our Community Engagement program can prepare students to enter any situation with an awareness that different “languages” are being spoken and learned; with a clear understanding of mutual goals and shared intentionality; and with skills for dialogue and mutual exchange. Ideally, both sides of any partnership will know that they can lean on the other’s knowledge, and on their common willingness to make this conversation – this exchange, this project – happen. (And hopefully they will also have some fun in the process!)

Rachael Barham


For more on St. Stephen’s University’s active role in community engagement, check out these opportunities:

SSU Community Engagement Scholarship

Community Appreciation Campaign

History and Community Engagement

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At SSU, we are in the process of identifying what community engagement means for us. We are a university committed to justice, beauty and compassion; how does that aspirational identity interact with the knowledge, gifts and needs of the local communities outside of our walls? What practical partnerships can we foster, on the one hand, to be good neighbours locally, and on the other, to equip our students with the skills and wisdom that will benefit them in their future communities (professionally and otherwise)?

Narrowing the issue down to my discipline – history – one starting point is to identify what knowledge and skills historians have to offer that can benefit a wider, non-academic community. Do historians make good neighbours? A second point to consider is how the work done by historians interacts with the knowledge, gifts and needs of the wider public.

To start with the second point, it is helpful to note that wider society has an evident hunger to engage with the past. That hunger has long manifested itself in popular culture; it is now also evident from the popularity of online DNA tests that promise to help consumers to discover the story of their ancestry.  I think a considerable part of this hunger for history is driven by what appears to be a universally human wish to belong, to feel connected to one’s roots. The hunger for history is locally present too; think of the efforts to preserve the historic town hall on Milltown boulevard, the interest in the old Ganong’s factory, or the interest in Open Doors St Stephen, in which SSU participates.

An engagement with history is also often driven by a thirst for justice and recognition. Locally speaking, how this thirst can be a powerful motivating power for grappling with history can be seen from the work of the Peskotomuhkati Recognition Group, that SSU continues to engage with. On a national scale, an example of how a confrontation with the past is necessitated by the thirst for justice and recognition is illustrated by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that has sought to guide Canada as it works through the fallout of the Indian Residential School system.

Incidentally, one of the TRC commissioners, Justice (now Senator) Murray Sinclair, studied not only law but also history at the University of Manitoba – and one strong historical imperative that emerges from much of his writing is the importance of preserving the testimony of those whose voices the powers that be have sought to silence; to make sure, in short, that people are not lost to memory.

As I write these lines, it is 75 years to the day that Soviet soldiers liberated the prisoners of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where over the course of the previous five years, between 1.1 and 1.5 million people had been killed. In the days leading up to the liberation, in a frantic effort to hide what had been going on, German camp guards destroyed incriminating evidence, and sent all prisoners who were still able to walk on a ‘death march’ to the West. Despite their efforts, the horrors of Auschwitz were not lost to history, and the desire to not see these events forgotten is still widely felt, especially in Europe.

History is the study of the power of stories, and the art of wielding those stories wisely. My ideal of a historian is someone who seeks to critically but compassionately preserve the memory of the past, who tries to learn of people’s experiences as directly as possible, and who takes these experiences seriously; historians know to critically engage with past and contemporary structures of power, while compassionately engaging those who are affected by them. I believe that students who develop those skills will find ample opportunity to employ them in their practical post-university life.

Laurens van Esch


For more on St. Stephen’s University’s active role in community engagement, check out these opportunities:

SSU Community Engagement Scholarship

Community Appreciation Campaign

Community Engagement: Enabling Transformation

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Over the last 6 years I’ve spent much of my time considering SSU’s proposition to potential students: My main goal was to find the intersection of two things: Firstly, what are we good at? What do we love to do? What do we do that nobody else can do? Secondly, what do high school kids want? In particular, what do they want from post secondary education? Where these two things meet indicates what we can offer them.

One thing we all agreed that we’ve been good at is transformation. Taking young people who’ve just left home and helping them see the world and face its issues and think about their place in it. When we rethought our mission statement a few years ago, we ended up with humble, creative engagement with our world being at the core of it.

All of our grads end up in a community of one sort or another, and our dream is that they engage with those communities with humility, compassion and initiative. We hope that they do that, but this time last year as we considered this next chapter in SSU’s we wondered if there was room for improvement in how well we prepare our students for this kind of engagement. Instead of just hoping that they engage once they’ve left, could we introduce them to engagement while they’re here?

This is an interesting question for me personally, because I have had to rethink engagement myself over the years, and then work hard at it. I grew up with community engagement simply meaning evangelism. Engagement with the world happened as a means to an end, which was the saving of souls. The only engagement I ever really did, had an agenda – I was always trying to get to the conversation about my faith. My mission was to engage my community with one sole purpose – conversion.

There was every now and then a service element to it; my church community would occasionally serve the poor or the homeless, but even that was tainted with this well-meaning ulterior motive: if we show them God’s love in a practical way, maybe they’ll come to church. I remember being a teenager and thinking, “Why would I ever want any of my school friends to come to church?” but that wasn’t the point. Church services were the point of entry into God’s Kingdom – if we could just get them to come to a church service and sing our songs and hear our sermons, surely they would join us.

I don’t think like that anymore ?. I recall the immense and life-changing relief of finally feeling free from this obligation to save my neighbor. Out of the blue I accidentally had a conversation with a fisherman that lived across from my house, and ended up helping him fix his Land Rover. I had no thought of trying to introduce him to church or Jesus. The only good news I shared with him was that I knew how to fix his truck. For the first time in my life I had genuinely, and helpfully, engaged with my community. Engaging was something I’d always dreaded, because of the intense obligation I was burdened with, but talking to this guy and working on his car was easy. I was just being nice. I was just being me.

I guess some people do this kind of engagement naturally. For me it took practice, and still does. It’s gotten easier as I’ve gotten older and less insecure. But I’m still pretty selfish and a lot of the time I can’t be bothered. But what I know now is that caring about the people in our communities is about the highest calling I can think of. I’d argue that if we genuinely offered ourselves to our communities as active participants, adding our gifts and skills and experience to the local mix, we’d be fulfilling our main purpose as human beings.

So as well as being something that I think SSU could do well, I believe community engagement has a strong moral imperative to it as well. It’s just the right thing to do! But it’s hard. Every one of us grew up in some kind of bubble. To me, our community engagement program should be a bubble burster – it should break people out of their tiny world bubble and dump them in a wider world, just like our travel program does. You can’t do that in a classroom alone. Most of our middle class students have only been around their parents and their peers at high school, and have never met real poor people. How many of our grads might be better at engaging with real people in their communities if we break the ice early in their development as independent adults?

SSU has always had a missional outlook, preparing people to be useful adults with purpose, but we need to be constantly thinking about how to better inspire our students to serve their communities when they leave. With this latest generation, I think it is essential that we figure out how to help get our students out of their privileged heads and self-centred anxieties, and into a worldview of gratitude and compassion. One could do an inspiring fireside chat about it, or a class, but nothing beats diving right in and doing something practical. There’s nothing quite like being faced with the stark reality of how other people live. It shakes us up. It makes us think about ourselves and our privilege, our bubbles. And just maybe it inspires us to make change, to serve, to engage with compassion.

That’s my dream for this program. I love that our students will also get real work experience, and I love that they’ll reduce their debts by getting paid to work, but for me the deepest value lies in exposing them to real community needs, to life without all its fullness, and empowering them to feel like they can do something about it.

Jeremy Barham – Interim President

New Asia Program Leader!

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Nadya in the library

We’re excited to announce that Dr. Nadya Pohran will be joining us at the end of the coming summer, preparing to lead our next Asia study abroad trip that fall.

Nadya Pohran is a cultural anthropologist who focuses on understanding the ways that religious and spiritual beliefs are lived out and practiced in individuals’ daily lives. After two years at St. Stephen’s University, she went on to receive a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Ottawa, an M.A. in Religious Studies from the University of Ottawa, and a PhD in Divinity from the University of Cambridge.

In a broad sense, she is interested in drawing upon people’s lived experiences in order to tease apart some of the binaries that are often assumed in much of current religious studies scholarship: she works to show how seemingly-opposite concepts—“belief and doubt”, “inviting and rejecting”, “captivity and freedom”, “strange and familiar”, “student and teacher”, etc.—can sometimes be better understood as oscillating expressions of the same concept.

She works interdisciplinarily, drawing upon fields of scholarship including: Anthropology of Christianity, Theology [Without Walls], Comparative Philosophy, Hindu-Christian Studies, and Indian Religions. Her PhD research focused on a Christian ashram in the North of India, where she conducted ethnographic fieldwork for approximately one year. In her thesis, she explored themes related to religious syncretism, inculturation, multiple religious orientation, interreligious relations, and existential belonging.

When not in the fieldsite or library, Nadya can be found playing basketball, puttering in her garden, or painting while sipping red wine. She looks forward to returning to SSU and having the opportunity to teach and learn alongside undergraduate students as they enter into cross-cultural experiences.

Community Engagement: Going Barefoot with Illich, Berry & Co.

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As soon as our (SSU’s) new focus on community engagement and innovation started to take hold, what excited me was the sense that we had found the missing piece. Here was the intentionality that would help us address “justice, beauty and compassion and a humble engagement with our world” (from our mission statement) in ways we had not yet found.

Over the years, I had listened to voices that critiqued the role of education and the university in contemporary society. Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry and the Barefoot College, founded in India by Bunker Roy, are among these idealist voices that have much to say. A deepening of community engagement is what these voices are calling for.

Ivan Illich was a renegade priest and iconoclastic voice active in the field of development and education in the seventies with a series of creative, polemical booklets on how the Church, western development and education were failing the people they were meant to serve. In works like Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, he critiqued what was failing and shared an alternate vision. He believed that educational institutions commodified education with the typical market outcome of making their product scarcer to drive up its perceived value. They stratified societies more often than they helped communities find solidarity and equality.

Instead he imagined more “convivial” webs of learning – educational practices on a more human scale that placed responsible limits on their claims, acknowledging the learning already taking place naturally in villages and non-Western countries. He felt the value of a good lecture was not primarily in its substance but in the opportunity it created for a hospitable gathering of friends to keep talking afterwards.

Wendell Berry also stresses limits and a more human education. It makes no sense to Berry that a university would take people out of their communities and train them to be useless to the places they came from. A good university must serve a real place and understand deeply its effect on human and natural communities.

A final, similar, voice is that of Barefoot College in Tilonia, India. Based deeply on village life and the values and lifestyle modeled by Mahatma Gandhi, Barefoot College was created by Bunker Roy in order to facilitate and enable the best education that was natural and innate in the villages of the poor. There, particularly among women (and even more particularly among grandmothers), he found the expertise and the approach that was needed to allow education and appropriate technology to flourish. They built their own solar-powered campus, barred anyone with a graduate degree from teaching, and spread throughout the world with their approach. The only “certificate” they are interested in is the acceptance of the community in which their people serve.

These are all radicals and idealists. I don’t want to be barred from teaching because I have degrees. But I do want to be inspired by all of them to be creative about serving our communities and our students with more justice, beauty and compassion.

As we develop our new emphasis on community engagement, here are three questions that I have for us at SSU that are inspired by voices like theirs:

  • Can we find the perfect fraction of SSU education to take place outside of our walls?
  • Can we develop the gift of searching for, identifying, participating in and offering academic credibility for genuine learning (related to university education) that takes place outside of traditionally accredited experiences?
  • Can we make SSU’s educational experiences and resources as available as possible to the communities around us?


Religious Studies and Community Engagement

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As the 21st century proceeds, there is a longing in academia to make bridges to a “real” world, to connect abstract ideas to the places where people actually live. At St. Stephen’s University we feel this, too, and it has led us to a determination to develop a major focus on community engagement. Each department, each discipline, is turning its attention to this task. What will a more practical application look like as it emerges from the world of ideas that is specific to each particular course of study?

My field is Religious Studies. As I thought about this challenge for my own work, I had a hard time imagining possible scenarios. In the past we have sent students to various faith communities to sing or to teach something, but that seemed a bit beside the point. How could a serious academic focus on Religious Studies contribute to deeper levels of involvement in the larger context in which we live?

Gradually, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a way. I think that the particular gift of Religious Studies is to help students attain a posture that will be most helpful for community engagement. In other words, the main role of this discipline may be preparation. Students that are drawn to religious studies, as well as the institutions that they inhabit, may be filled with ideas that make it hard to work in a synergistic way with others. Religious exclusivism can be very real. People with good intentions may find it hard to learn from peers that hold different worldviews. Such people may present a kind exterior but quietly reserve the right to filter out the contributions of others. I think that I have seen this time after time. What might help?

First, Religious Studies can help people learn to dialogue and to value a “spirituality enriched by difference.” After all, in many traditions, Christianity included, there is a high value on treating others as you would like to be treated yourself. This includes giving fair hearing to others and learning from them wherever possible. We would all like to be treated like that.

Secondly, Religious Studies can help people learn to appreciate sacred texts without being forever imprisoned to ancient decrees. Our discipline can help people see that many mistakes have been made through the ages by authoritarian interpretations and it can help people learn to be comfortable with humbler, and probably wiser, approaches.

Third, Religious Studies can help people see the need to learn from the real-life difficulties of individuals and groups. It can help students step away from idealism and appreciate the complexity of some of the dilemmas that other people, including minorities in various societies, actually face.

Fourth, Religious Studies can help to re-focus the passions so that people are ready to lend their hand to efforts to make the world more just, more compassionate, and more beautiful. There is a great temptation, for those who are drawn to religious studies, to use their energy in pursuit of the priorities of their own communities. At best, this can be an important stage in personal development and maturity. At worst, it can be a distraction from making a difference in a real world. It’s like flowers or vegetables that are started in a hothouse but never replanted in a larger garden. The shelter is appreciated but the benefit to the larger community is lost.

I can think of some other ways as well, but this may suffice as an indication of the kind of the value that Religious Studies may bring to the table as universities seek to find deeper and better ways to engage the world that surrounds them.

Peter Fitch, D. Min.

Professor of Religious Studies

November 2019



International Studies & Community Engagement

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I was at a conference recently and one of the participants made a comment that really resonates with me. He said, “it works well in practice, but does it work in theory?” We are more accustomed to the question, “does it work in practice?” I once heard Stephen Lewis quip that he’s a Socialist so he knows all about great ideas that don’t work in practice. This all reminds me of the wonderful, perplexing, sometimes frustrating, ongoing tension in academic work – and life in general – between theory and practice.

In the “ivory tower”, we have often been accused of – and enjoyed – living a little above the fray of everyday life; of delighting in the ideological and philosophical atmosphere where practicalities are not our principle focus. In the social sciences we can wrestle with and develop ideas and theories and leave it to the practitioners to figure out whether or not our theories add any sense of meaning or coherence to the “real world” with its promises and problems. In the humanities, we can gain understanding and give expression to the agony and ecstasy of human experience throughout the ages.

I confess that I’ve always felt a bit like an imposter in academic circles, partly because I have an ongoing fascination with the interplay between theory and practice. I come by this fascination honestly enough – my dad was a biomedical engineer who specialized in developing the myoelectric technology which allows people with prosthetic hands to control the finer and more complex movements of their hands. Hooks can grasp objects but do not even attempt to mimic the more complex and nuanced tasks that I can take for granted – picking up delicate or fine objects, for example. The prosthetic hands that my dad helped develop are a wonderful example of theory that is applied and refined for utilitarian purposes.

And, having married a commercial fisherman over three decades ago, I participate daily in discussions of practical significance. Questions about environmental stewardship or policies around resource management have consequences now and into the future and are always based on one theoretical and political vision or another. A frequent lament amongst fishers and farmers is that decisions affecting their lives and livelihoods are too often made in offices in Ottawa or Halifax or Edmonton, far removed from the bays and fields of real life. And bad policies can be as much about a failure to consider culture and the influence of generational wisdom, knowledge and resilience as they are about misguided or incomplete science.

At SSU as we consider how to move forward with our vision of community engagement, I am very excited for how this will strengthen the International Studies (IS) program. Students often come to SSU and more specifically, into International Studies, because they want to “make a difference” in the world. They recognize some of the challenges humanity is facing and feel compelled to be engaged. But, truth be told, they don’t actually know much about how the world works – the international or national organizations and structures and ideologies that underpin the “way things are” or the historical moments upon which the arc we’re now on is rooted.  My hope has always been that their time at SSU will help them to identify the things that they think need changing and some of the principles and practices needed to move in those directions.

I have also consistently said that wanting to make a difference is a great place to start, but that if we can’t make a difference WHERE we are, there’s no point in aspiring to make a difference somewhere else. At present, the Field Experience requirement (a 3 credit hour course, usually done in the third or fourth year of the IS program) is the one intentional opportunity for students to choose, or design, a hands-on community engagement project, locally or further afield. It CAN be a transformative experience.

My hope is that the community engagement focus will amplify this aspect of the SSU experience for all students, thus better equipping them for whatever path they choose after they graduate, be it further study, work in their chosen field, and/or intentional engagement in community and/or family life.

Community engagement makes sense in theory, but even more importantly, I believe that it will work in practice to prepare our graduates through academic and personal development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.

Discussion and Investigations: ‘Community Engagement’

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The Mission of SSU is “to prepare people, through academic, personal, and spiritual development, for a life of justice, beauty, and compassion, enabling a humble, creative engagement with their world.” This is a lofty and admirable mission and it requires us to actively review and rethink how we do things. Over the 44 year history of the university we have developed many different academic programs and right now we are exploring something called ‘community engagement.’ Why are we focusing on this now? Our preliminary research suggests that ‘community engagement’ is something that is related to many things we have done previously, but could also extend our academic program further in useful and desirable ways. How will ‘community engagement’ aid us in our mission? This is one of the big questions we are just starting to unpack.

Of course, this question of how community engagement aids us in our mission leads to many other questions. What do we mean by “community engagement?” What do others (people and institutions) mean by this term? Do we not already engage with our community? Which community are we talking about anyways?

It is often helpful to begin a journey into unknown territory with questions, and as an academic institution we know that questions are at the heart of our studies across the disciplines we are passionate about. So we ask even more questions, organize them into groups and peck away at answers. Some questions are important to ask because they help us pay attention to who we are, and not just the information we collect in our research. As we look around at various ideas and expressions of community engagement we ask: what are we drawn to? What are our goals? What will we add that is desirable by focusing more ‘community engagement’? What will we add that is undesirable?

Many institutions of higher education, in Canada and abroad, are talking about community engagement. It is a very trendy topic. Investigating what different people are talking about when they talk about community engagement is helping us get a clearer sense of what we would like to do. Some institutions, such as the University of Calgary (U of C), talk about community engagement in the sense of making spaces and activities as connected and accessible to the people who live in the space around the university. The U of C website has a page dedicated to explaining their approach to ‘community engagement’ and it lists almost every part of the institution, from its facilities to ‘Indigenous Reconciliation’, as being a component of ‘community engagement. 

At Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, the activities associated with ‘community engagement’ are different. SFU does not list the ways in which its facilities are part of engaging with the community, rather SFU has set an institution wide target to become “Canada’s most community-engaged research community.” It lists on its website the objectives it associates with community engagement as well as its priorities. Objectives include: “increase experiential learning opportunities”, “develop new programs for mature, returning and non-traditional students.” Priorities include: “measure, communicate & celebrate”, “improve community access.”

Finally at Western University in London Ontario we see another approach that seems to be as different from those taken by SFU and U of C as they are from each other. At Western the faculty of Arts & Humanities has a department of “Public Humanities.” The Public Humanities is not a strategic focus for the university but rather conceived of as a discipline of the humanities. As an academic discipline it works on reimagining “the place of public scholarship, experiential learning, and mutually beneficial forms of campus-community collaboration across the Arts and Humanities disciplines.” What does this mean? Well rather than seeing community engagement as something to be bolted onto university programs, or a new program that is added alongside others, the Public Humanities at Western appears to understand ‘community engagement’ as a part of the humanities, or a way of doing humanities itself. It is something that is created through academic ways of asking questions, engaging in dialogue, and producing knowledge.

Many universities beyond these three are actively talking about ‘community engagement.’ How ‘community engagement’ is talked about varies widely. How it is deployed varies widely. At SSU we have long talked about community, engaging with one another, and being changed through that engagement. Now we are looking to go deeper and broader, to again re-examine the mechanisms and purposes of our academic program as we continue to try and provide a place that prepares people for a life of beauty, justice and compassion. Throughout this academic year the research being undertaken by our faculty, and the conversations happening among leadership, will move out in various forms to broader community spaces. Look to this blog and various public events for opportunities to learn with us as we move forward. Also feel free to email me, Dr. Matt Balcarras, Associate Dean of Arts, with any questions you have about community engagement or our process: mbalcarras @ ssu.ca

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