Slice of life: Learning while helping others

Slice of life: Learning while helping others McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 20, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 15
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 32: 1999-2000 > April 20, 2000 > Slice of life: Learning while helping others

Slice of life:
Learning while helping others

| When Kariann Aarup describes her vision of teaching, she talks about "evoking curiosity, creativity, imagination and the emotions." This is usually the stuff of the arts and humanities, of students pondering over the Romantics or Caravaggio and other old masters. But Aarup is a management doctoral student who teaches in the undergraduate program. Her vision represents a sense of new possibilities stemming out of the growing concern for social issues in faculties like management and law and the School of Architecture.

"The awareness coming into management school is amazing. Today's students want and need more than administrative skills. They're asking questions, very critical ones, about the social context in business, globalization and labour issues in the third World, the standardization of culture through mass culture," says Aarup. "They're saying: 'These issues touch us. We care about this.' And my response is: 'Yes, there should be a legitimate space in their education, and mine, for these concerns.'"

This "legitimate space" includes a wide range of developments within these departments and among the attitudes of faculty and students. Management, especially, is ablaze with innovative and dynamic initiatives. Last August heralded a new program, The McGill-McConnell Master of Management for National Voluntary Sector Leaders which offers practical training to senior and emerging leaders in the growing volunteer sector. The Students' Society of McGill and a 1991 management graduate Peter Sheremeta are setting up Impact: The Anti-Poverty Action Centre, a program to help students gear their course work towards projects to help eliminate poverty in Montreal and Quebec. Plans are also underway for the creation of a business watch, a student group to help raise awareness about responsible business.

The powerful impact of this enterprise is most evident in people like Aarup who, as a student and teacher, maintains that management and administrative skills can be applied to all kinds of organizations, not just corporations. "Management students first see themselves as future CEOs. They take any activism against that role personally." But when philosophical questions are incorporated into the classroom, says Aarup, it's possible to change their conception of what it means to be a future manager.

It's also important to analyze who comes to the university to recruit, she says. "It's a real loss when management students pre-select themselves out of certain areas because there are no links to finding jobs in economic development or the volunteer sector. We need to help students find these opportunities."

In the Faculty of Law, such links and opportunities do exist. As part of their training and field work, students have the possibility of working in the campus legal clinic or taking a six-credit course enabling them to work for community organizations. But Aarup's cautionary words about the corporate nature of recruitment hit a nerve with law students who enter the faculty with high ideals about society and justice. They become cynical and disaffected by an increasingly corporate legal profession that pays little attention to, for example, family law.

"I feel like we learn nothing that affects real people," says Claire Skrinda, a third-year law student. "In school, you quickly realize how the law is geared towards people with money, like successions or trust funds. And the only firms recruiting are the big ones. But social [legal] work is highly local — you're dealing with the drug addict at the corner or the CLSC. To many, it's less glamorous than working in areas like international human rights."

Skrinda's field work has been at Project Genesis, a Côte-des-Neiges community centre in which she mostly deals with immigration and poverty issues. Skrinda says that the Genesis experience has made her realize that existing legal structures are too convoluted for the average person. "It's crazy how many things we need lawyers for. This is a huge barrier for people trying to work out simple problems."

This is why Bill Hlibchuk chose to do the Joint Masters of Law and Social Work degree. In dealing with young offenders at Head and Hand clinic, Hlibchuk, who has a BSW, realized that disadvantaged youth couldn't afford legal counsel and didn't know much about the process. Moreover, many were anti-establishment and distrustful of most officials. The joint program was a way for him to "try and effect policy and make changes." As far as he's concerned, working for the community or public welfare has always been a part of a lawyer's role, like the pro bono work required of many.

But a dependence on grants and decreasing funds for social programs means that community organizations often cannot afford to retain good lawyers and administrators. Hblichuk says the best and brightest are lost to the moneymakers, creating a high rate of turnover in community agencies. Encouraging students to seek work in the non-profit, volunteer or community sector can be a challenging feat because of a perception that these environments lack a certain degree of professionalism. "Despite our good intentions, these places can sometimes be frustrating, bureaucratic messes," says Skrinda.

Sounds like management and law need to collaborate, says Aarup. Traditionally, social work, medicine, nursing and education have had more obviously humanitarian possibilities, with the idea of learning while helping others an inherent part of the curriculum. In contrast, one doesn't usually associate management, engineering, architecture or law with mutual aid. In fact, these particular programs get a bad rap for producing what one cynical student referred to as "corporate whores."

Aarup suggests that these and other types of challenges illustrate the need for these faculties to work together towards developing concrete solutions so that students are able to incorporate a humanitarian approach into the work they do. She has hopes that such efforts would produce the kind of "creativity that comes from opposition."

Architecture professor Peter Sijpkes sees the tide towards activism and volunteerism in these programs as part of a much larger movement that includes the recent protests against globalization. Historically, says Sijpkes, politics move back and forth, from left to right, and back. Now, "it has looped back to the left, to social concerns. People are very interested in all sorts of things, in gardens, and housing and community," he says.

Having done his architectural training in the '60s, Sijpkes says he has no sympathy for the right-wing wave of the past few decades and he extends this criticism to current projects like the proposed super-hospital, which he sees as "retrograde" or Olympic Stadium in-the-making.

In the School of Architecture, students gained valuable practical experience by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, a worldwide organization seeking to build houses for the poor through volunteer labour and donations of money and materials. Last year, the McGill chapter of HFH helped renovate the Montreal Diet Dispensary, an agency that helps poor pregnant women, and aided with the building of two houses in St. Henri. In February they helped stage a "tent-in" to raise money for construction projects and raise awareness of homelessness. Summer projects include renovating Elizabeth House, a shelter for pregnant women.

Karen Wan of the McGill HFH chapter said, "going on a build was my salvation." The graduate student in architecture had become disenchanted with certain aspects of the profession. She cited the off-putting egotism of some professional architects, a general lack of design-consciousness in the commercial building market and changing rules in Quebec that no longer require an architect for buildings under a certain size.

Working with HFH provided Wan with practical experience in construction. "We're supposed to know about drainage, but it was nice to actually see how it works" she says. Hubert Hsu, another architecture master's student and member of the McGill HFH chapter, jokes: "Ya, I got to touch a hammer." But both students also talked about the experience of, as Hsu puts it, "killing two birds with one stone. I got to participate in community work and experience the building process."

Wan describes a recent HFH build in Patterson, New Jersey: "I didn't care that I was shoveling dirt because I met the people who were going to live in the house we were building. The kids would come see us every day with their mom. They were so happy, and felt so lucky that they could have a home."

HFH provides a family with housing in exchange for a down payment and 500 hours of sweat equity, their own labour, to help build their Habitat house and to help others do the same. The family is also given a 20-year interest-free loan and they receive financial counseling. "It's important that they are taking ownership of a home, compared to low-cost housing which is rented," says Hsu.

"I felt like I was helping someone for the rest of their lives."

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