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New opportunities in the works: Experiential Learning at UWinnipeg

Tue. Dec. 17, 2019

Nyala Ali
Nyala Ali is the new Experiential Learning and Internship Coordinator.
Photo credit: Jennifer Cox


More and more we hear about experiential learning (EL). EL can take many forms, such as fieldtrips, co-op practica, work integrated learning. But what all of these share is that they involve a form of hands-on learning. While EL is not a new concept, it’s one that is gaining traction at universities nationwide in the current job market.


As Associate Dean of Arts, Dr. Catherine Taylor oversaw the Experiential Learning and Internship Coordinator position in the Faculty of Arts and the hiring of Nyala Ali to fill that position.* I recently met with Dr. Taylor to find out more about experiential learning and what the University’s Faculty of Arts is doing to incorporate EL into Arts programs.

Background

Dr. Taylor started by providing some background. She explained that there’s been increasing pressure on post-secondary institutions to demonstrate that graduates are able to find employment that is related to their studies.** At the same time, she says, students – and their parents – are asking how university coursework will lead to a job.

It is easier, Taylor says, to demonstrate the relevance of a university education in some areas than in others. Education, for example, graduates teachers and guidance counsellors. In science, there are activities, such as fieldwork and labs that are job related. In arts, she says, that connection isn’t always as clear. It can be difficult to imagine a direct line from a degree in, say Classics or Rhetoric, to the job market. Still Taylor feels a humanities student has the right to ask, “What can I do with my Arts degree?”

So when it came time to fill the University’s Experiential Learning Coordinator position, Taylor says the decision was made to have it focus on work-integrated learning, and especially on work-integrated learning in the Faculty of Arts. As in the previous version of the position, the Coordinator will work with faculties across the University, and will support forms of EL that may have less obvious connections to future employment.*** But this time, the Coordinator will also be tasked with focusing on supporting Arts professors as they develop and implement internships and other forms of work-integrated learning for their students.

Introducing Nyala Ali

Nyala Ali is the new Experiential Learning and Internship Coordinator. “She’s terrific!”, Taylor says. She knows the University community, having worked as a department assistant in four departments. She is a UWinnipeg alumna having done both her BA (Hons) in English and her MA here. As well, she adds, “Nyala has this whole life outside the University!” Ali has experience working in insurance – which is relevant to some aspects of this position. She also worked for a marketing firm with a diverse client base. That experience is particularly relevant to her work in EL, says Taylor, as it familiarized her with different work sectors in the city. This allows her to imagine a variety of work situations and communicate with a variety of potential EL sites. As well, Ali is a drummer (“a new band is in the works”) and a writer! (She is frequently a reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press.)

Ali is looking at the big picture to find what’s helpful to instructors and students. She is starting with a period of exploration and trying to determine how she can best support the mandate. She’s also working to find out what was already here at UWinnipeg (at least a half dozen departments in Arts were already offering some form of EL) and what’s going on in EL across the country, especially at universities where they have more experience and/or money.

Ali’s goal, says Taylor, will be develop work placements and to make connections with organizations and students in order to let them know about these opportunities. This will involve Nyala going out to places such as Great West Life, Nine Circles Community Health Centre, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, literary organizations, etc. She’ll connect our instructors with the community partners that she has lined up. Then, there’ll be back and forth negotiations in order to develop contracts with students that they would fulfill as part of their coursework.

To liaise with organizations in this way can involve a lot of back and forth, Taylor says. It’s not always practical to expect an instructor to undertake this for a class of five students, much less a class of 20 students! They envision Nyala becoming a specialist in supervising these placements and being that liaison between students and instructors. This would allow for the University to offer more internship courses and to have more students in them. While this might start with a lot of one-on-one conversations and 30 to 40 placements, in a few years, there could be as many as 200. For this year, says Taylor, Ali’s challenge is support the work of faculty and determine what kind of support she can realistically offer in the short term.

According to Taylor, a great initiative of Ali’s has been the creation of a “one-stop shop” online for EL instructors and students to highlight things that don’t normally come up in a lecture-based course format. For example, prior to a field trip, instructors must file a field trip plan, which includes filling out a hazard list and filling out a form with contact information for students’ next-of-kin. For field trips outside of Canada, information about students’ insurance is required. In some situations, students are asked to sign waivers. Nyala has organized all of this on the “Field Trips” page on the EL website. That way, there’s no clicking around for faculty members or students; everything they need, including the University policies on field trips, is right there.

What it comes down to, says Taylor, is the more we can do to support instruction, cut through the red tape, and organize what instructors need, the more faculty involvement we can expect. And with that, the more opportunities we’ll be able to offer to our students. All the while, she adds, the focus will be on trying to achieve positive employment outcomes for our graduates.

*Dr. Catherine Taylor's term as Associate Dean of Arts ended as of December 31, 2019. The Experiential Learning and Intership Coordinator now reports to Dr. Glenn Moulaison, Dean of Arts.

**Recently, an action plan, “Horizon Manitoba”, was announced as a large scale partnership that will see Manitoba business working with post-secondary institution and government in order to ensure that students are graduating with the skills that they need. (See the UWinnipeg Communications feature New report outlines bold actions to prepare graduates to succeed from January 17, 2020.)

***Daniel Leonard was previously the University’s Experiential Learning Coordinator, prior to his move to Institutional Analysis.