At Wilfrid Laurier University, experiential learning is at the core of what we do. It provides an opportunity for students to apply knowledge and skills in authentic contexts, while engaging in reflection to make meaning from their experiences. Non-profit organizations provide rich environments for students to develop transferable skills, gain a deeper understanding of their values and establish a network of connections to enrich their lives personally and professionally.
“Volunteering provides students with so many opportunities to learn about themselves, develop skills, increase their knowledge about the non-profit sector and explore potential careers,” says Jan Basso, Assistant Vice-president of Experiential Learning and Career Development at Laurier. “We want to foster and promote mutually beneficial relationships with non-profit organizations surrounding our campus communities so our students can contribute to and learn about this sector.”
The Non-Profit Sector Experiential Certificate, co-ordinated by Laurier’s Career Centre, is a key initiative that informs and prepares students for experiential learning opportunities in the non-profit sector.
In a project funded through the Province of Ontario’s Career-Ready Fund, Laurier partnered with Capacity Canada on the Transforming Social and Non-Profit Experiential Learning initiative. This project was designed to understand how to better support experiential learning in the non-profit sector and to learn about the sector’s needs more deeply. Based on feedback from community organizations, students and faculty, the Non-Profit Sector Experiential Certificate was developed to equip students with the self-awareness and professional skillset they need in order to have meaningful experiences within the community.
“Volunteering provides students with so many opportunities to learn about themselves, develop skills, increase their knowledge about the non-profit sector and explore potential careers.”
The certificate includes two components:
A curriculum was created through career development research, feedback from community partners and through a partnership table comprised of senior leaders in the community, faculty and Career Centre staff. This resulted in four workshop modules:
- Understanding Self: A guided exploration into personal values, an understanding of oneself and their communities.
- Understanding the Non-Profit Sector: Evolution, current trends, organizational models, challenges and opportunities.
- Skills and Professionalism in the Workplace: Identifying personal skills and areas of growth, skills needed in the non-profit sector.
- Critical Reflection: Analyzing personal experiences, questioning assumptions and reactions, and determining how students’ beliefs and experiences could impact them in the future.
This component provides the opportunity for students to deepen their learning and gain practical experience with a non-profit organization through 15-20 hours of volunteering in an academic term. The program facilitator works with the student to identify a community organization they are interested in supporting and the facilitator co-ordinates the logistics of the placement.
Pilot to present day
In the winter term of 2019, Laurier’s Career Development Centre, in collaboration with the Department of Residence, conducted a pilot with a group of first-year students living in residence. This strategy provided a more targeted participant audience. Prior to the beginning of the term, we reached out to Residence Education Co-ordinators and discussed various ways to promote the certificate. Workshops were offered every other week from January to March. We offered workshops at varied times during the week to ensure flexibility for different student schedules. In the pilot phase, a total of five cohorts with 42 first-year students completed the certificate.
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Since the pilot, there has been an average of 40 students across all years of study completing the certificate every term. Students have volunteered with a range of organizations, such as the Food Bank, Kidsability, the Working Centre and the Sexual Assault Centre, in the cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and Brantford. Workshops are now held every week for four consecutive weeks instead of the bi-weekly approach used in the pilot phase. Students have the option of completing their placements over the course of the semester or over their Reading Week break.
Reception from students
The certificate was designed to instill in students the practice of critical reflection and create meaningful engagements with community organizations. Student participants are guided through the process of identifying and articulating their values and how those values align with non-profit organizations. One student who successfully completed the certificate commented:
“During the workshops I learned how important it is to reflect on my own values and align myself with an organization that matches those values.”
The program also serves as a platform for students to gain a deeper understanding of the non-profit sector. Between their increased knowledge of the sector’s models and the experiential component, students develop and learn how to articulate skills for their resumes. As another participant shared:
“The program provided me with new skills and competencies for working in the non-profit sector. I have become more passionate about working in and supporting the non-profit sector as I discovered its alignment with my values and my desire to devote my work to community and individual care and development.”
Reception from the sector
One of the intended outcomes of the certificate is to support the human capital needs within the non-profit sector as students engage in community volunteer programs. The program is successful in encouraging a new generation of talent to enter the non-profit sector as evidenced by student feedback, as well as our community partners. Non-profit organizations connected to the certificate have expressed gratitude for the access to student talent coming from a variety of academic disciplines.
Looking ahead, we have an opportunity to improve the certificate program from the student and the partner perspective. For example, one of the major challenges of the program is finding organizations to accept volunteers for 15-20 hours. Organizations have indicated that this is a short period of time to train and engage a student in a specific volunteer role.
In the Career Development Centre, we recognize student volunteer opportunities in the non-profit sector as much more than acts of charity. It is now time that we impart this knowledge to students whose perception of volunteerism may be limited to their high school experience. Laurier’s Non-Profit Sector Experiential Certificate has opened the door for students who have never volunteered before to engage in the community and for those who have volunteered before to become more intentional about their volunteer experiences. Ultimately, it has encouraged students to reflect more on the many experiential learning opportunities that they participate in through their university journey.
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