Experiential learning through practicum placements . . . from a distance

- April 9, 2021

Left to right: Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences students Izzy Ortner, Madison MacKinnon and Raphy Magboo have all carried out practicum placements virtually this year. (Provided photos)
Left to right: Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences students Izzy Ortner, Madison MacKinnon and Raphy Magboo have all carried out practicum placements virtually this year. (Provided photos)

Experiential learning is in high demand across disciplines these days as students look for ways to complement their academic learning with more hands-on lived experiences that can help them build real-world connections and professional opportunities.

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences is no exception. Experiential learning opportunities have blossomed in the Faculty in recent years in response to demand, with the new FASS-Ex program hooking students up with field courses, community service-learning projects, apprenticeships, simulations, creative performances and productions, job placements and more.

FASS faculty members are answering the call and getting creative in how they go about integrating experiential learning into their programs.

Take Margaret Denike, for instance, who is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and coordinator of the popular Law, Justice and Society (LJSO) program. Dr. Denike has opted to reimagine some of her courses so that the locus of learning is outside the classroom rather than within it.

 “As a faculty member, one of the most expedient ways to [provide these opportunities] has been to work within the framework of course delivery, and to develop a course that students could take for credit that would enable them to spend the time that they would otherwise be in the classroom working, instead, within a community organization or service.”

Dr. Denike introduced one such course, Practicum Placement in Public Policy: NGOs and Government Services, designed to grant fourth-year political science students the opportunity to gain practical experience by working seven hours per week at a government or non-government organization or service, allowing them to apply and share the knowledge they have gained from their academic studies, while becoming familiar with the day-to-day challenges of employment.

Now in its fourth year, the success of this course has grown with the help of Dal/King’s Political Science alum, Wes Petite, in expanding its placement offerings to include new opportunities for Gender and Women’s Studies and LJSO students as well.

Reimagining opportunities

Though opportunities for this course have grown, so have the challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The course was meant to provide hands-on, in-person experiential leaning opportunities,” says Dr. Denike. “I had not envisioned this as something that would be offered virtually, so it was indeed a collaborative effort that has relied on the flexibility of the participating organizations to design virtual projects and engage students, virtually, in their work and service delivery.”

Dr. Denike explains that for many of these placements, the experience of working virtually highlights how much of the research and advocacy work can effectively be done independently and remotely.

“The experience could well be one of inspiring and empowering students to seek out opportunities for engaging in research from wherever they are, despite the distance between them and their supervisors or colleagues.”

Dalhousie LJSO major Madison MacKinnon is completing her practicum with the Canadian Rights and Freedoms Centre, an independent non-profit organization established to promote and protect human rights. Madison saw this unique practicum as an opportunity to work for an organization steeped in human rights law, an area she hopes to practice in the future. And even though most of her practicum work has been completed virtually, Madison says the professional work experience she is receiving will be just as valuable to her future academic and career goals as if she were working in an in-person office setting.

“The amount that I have learned I believe would be the same whether or not the work was in-person, as the point of the placement is to step outside of your comfort zone and learn new things while receiving helpful criticism and support from someone who is meant to guide you through the process,” she explains.

Madison’s work during the placement has focused mostly on prison-advocacy human rights law, which has offered her a chance to create legal briefs, conduct legal and sociological research, facilitate phone calls with inmates, and more. She notes the experience, despite being virtual, has cemented in her mind where her passions lie and opened new doors for her to get there.

Building new relationships and confidence

Izzy Ortner, a University of King’s College student completing a double-major in contemporary studies and political science, is participating in a practicum with the Nova Scotia Community College’s Human Rights and Equity Services. She says even though her work with this office has all been virtual, she has been able to forge new professional relationships.

“What drew me to the practicum program was the opportunity to build real connections outside of Dalhousie,” says Izzy. “It was important, especially in my last year of my degree, to learn skills that will aid in the smooth transition out of the academy and into the professional world.”

Dal LJSO and political science double major Raphaela (Raphy) Magboo was unsure at first if her practicum placement with the Halifax Regional Municipality’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion was the right fit for her. When she first connected with her supervisor before the start of the term, she made sure that she had done her research. She even prepared a long list of questions to ensure that working with this organization would align with her values and their expectations.

Now, a few months into her placement, Raphy says she is extremely grateful she persevered with the opportunity.

“I feel validated and confident because the Office and the work they do have their own way of honouring lived experiences,” she says. “They also inspire me to reflect and bring forward my beliefs and advocacies, even if that meant having a complex conversation. These things are vital for me as I pride myself as an ally and continuously attempt to represent and honour those who do not have the opportunity to sit at the same table and advocate for themselves.”

She adds that even though she is having a great experience working virtually, she would like to have the opportunity to work in person with this office.

“My teammates have been very welcoming and always had their ‘virtual’ doors open to assist me with my learning and provide me feedback. But still, there are some times where I wished I could join them in the office and get to know them better because it is sure that COVID-19 has been impacting and limiting our interactions.”

A different perspective

Dr. Denike says working virtually has illustrated to students how organizations are rising to the challenge during difficult times. But she still worries they are missing one of the most cherished aspects of a practicum placement.

“Nothing replaces the experience of engaging in the work face-to-face and appreciating their specific needs,” she says.

Still, in many cases, she says students have seen just how much more impactful in-person restrictions caused by COVID-19 are to the most marginalized and disadvantaged individuals who rely so heavily and quite literally on the direct contact and in-person support that has been far less available to them.

“It has thus been a loss not only for the students and participating organizations, but also, and especially for these marginalized groups who rely on them.”


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