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Maintaining community during the COVID-19 pandemic

Tue. Apr. 28, 2020

Recently, I met with Dr. Shauna MacKinnon (Chair of the Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies) and Nadya Alahakoon (Department Administrator and Community/Student Liaison Officer) via Zoom to find out how the Department is managing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UIC Department Chair and staff members

Faculty and staff are still serving UIC students while working from home.

Photo credit:
Nadya Alahakoon

Clockwise from top right: Nadya Alahakoon (UIC Department Administrator and Community/Student Liaison Officer), Hannah Krenn (UIC Academic Coordinator), Shauna MacKinnon (UIC Chair), and Kerniel Aasland (UIC Inner-City Work Study Program Coordinator)

In late March, when the University of Winnipeg campus closed, classes shifted online and faculty and staff started working from home. Dr. MacKinnon talks about how this has impacted their program. “There’s a model that drives what we do," she explains, "and that involves being in the North End community and exploring issues like poverty and colonization with the people affected by them.” Community is literally at the heart of the work they do and being there is important. So much so that the Department physically relocated to Selkirk Avenue in 2011 in order to be accessible to members of the community. It would be difficult not to experience the current situation as a set-back.

The other side, says MacKinnon, is that it’s important to bring students from the main campus to the North End, as part of the process of reconciliation. Their program creates safe spaces in classes where Indigenous and non-Indigenous students share with one another without the fear of being judged. MacKinnon says that this creates a powerful dynamic that you need to see to understand. Having students learning online disrupts that.

MacKinnon says that they sense that some of their students have withdrawn due to the uncertainty of the current situation. Nadya Alahakoon has tried to maintain contact with students. She says that she has found that Facebook has been more effective to communicate with their students, rather than phone or e-mail. That being the case, Shawna Peloquin (Student Commissioner in Manitoba for The Circle of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Students), started a new Facebook group open to anyone who has taken a UIC course. The Department also has a weekly check-in with the students of the Urban and Inner-City Studies Students' Association (UICSA) in order to stay closely connected with them.

UIC Chair and staff and members of the UICSA

UIC Chair Shauna MacKinnon and UIC staff members check in weekly with members of the UICSA.

Photo credit: Dagen Perrot

Centre: Hannah Krenn; Clockwise from centre top: Dagen Perrot (UICSA Director), Nadya Alahakoon, Shauna MacKinnon, Dorothy Harmon (UIC student), Shawna Peloquin (Student Commissioner in Manitoba for The Circle of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Students), Lauren Webster (UICSA Co-Director), Julia Pond (UIC student), Kerniel Aasland

Alahakoon notes that the Department is offering two courses this summer and both are full with large waitlists. Many are new students to the program, and hopefully there will be some among these that may go on to take more UIC courses in the future. However, the flip side is that they aren’t seeing as many UIC students registering. This could be related to concerns students might have about studying online. MacKinnon will be working with Kerniel Aasland (Inner-City Work Study Program Coordinator), Hannah Krenn (Academic Coordinator), and Alahakoon on a research project to get a better understanding of what the issues are. The project will also serve as a means of developing and maintaining connections with students. MacKinnon notes that their relationships with community organizations continue in spite of the current situation and they are in constant contact with these, partly due to Shauna’s research and Kerniel’s work with the Inner-City Work Study program. The Department is deeply embedded in the community so maintaining relationships happens quite naturally, she adds.

According to MacKinnon, while the pandemic is hard on everyone, it is especially hard for people living in poverty. This is true also for students living in poverty, she says. Similarly, the current situation is difficult for typical students, but if you’re marginalized, there are additional barriers you have to confront. For example, online coursework requires that you have access to a computer and a high speed internet connection. The Department is looking at how they will need to support their students, especially if that means a continuation of online classes going into the fall term.

Another issue related to the COVID-19 situation is that much of their coursework is practicum-based and incorporates experiential learning. Since this type of learning is hands-on, it can’t be done online. The Inner-City Work Study program is a good example of this. Students enrolled in the program take a six-credit hour course and undertake a paid work placement in a community organization. The program was scheduled to run this summer, but had to be deferred to the fall, at the earliest. MacKinnon says that there is support from the community organizations for this and interest from some of the students. Students interested in applying for the fall cohort should contact Kerniel Aasland at k.aasland@uwinnipeg.ca*

Going forward, MacKinnon says she finds it helpful to look at the bigger picture. And while the faculty and staff of the University are working hard to figure out how to support students generally, she says that they’re looking at this in particular regard to their own students. “We’re doing our best figure out how we can facilitate our students’ programs without interruption in a way that makes sense for us.”

*Updated July 27, 2020 This was posted in April 2020. While it is too late to apply now for the fall cohort of the Inner-City Work Study program, students interested in applying for the summer 2021 cohort could contact Kerniel Aasland.

Lisa McLean
Faculty of Arts