When the classroom and community service collide

Spring 2015 issue

While experiential learning has become a buzzword in academic circles, it’s a methodology deeply ingrained in Mount Royal university’s DNA.

From the University’s century-long roots, Mount Royal has emerged as a national leader in a strand of teaching and learning known as community service learning. The University recently introduced a special citation to better recognize students who are making a difference in the heart of their communities.

Words by Bryan Weismiller


Working under the blistering Caribbean sun, with their hands and nursing scrubs awash in fingerpaint, a group of Mount Royal students found themselves hitting a crossroad between textbook concepts and the sombre realities of one of the world’s worst slums.

It was February 2014 when the nursing students were asked to teach healthy habits to youngsters in the impoverished communities of Maria Auxiliadora and Soto barrios in the Dominican Republic. The day’s lesson plan seemed simple enough. By getting the kids to dirty their hands with paint, the student nurses were creating a fun opportunity to practise handwashing, a priority global health-promotion strategy.

But on this particularly poignant day — among many uplifting moments on their two-week partnership with T.E.A.R.S Ministries — the undergraduates recall how an electrical outage had knocked out the pump that supplied the school’s water.

School administrators offered to tap into the community’s bottled water supply to finish the exercise. As active promoters of community health, the Mount Royal students questioned the wisdom of teaching hand-washing with scarcely available drinking water. For Megan Karmann, it was a window into the impossible choices made on the low-income island every day.

“We felt sick,” Karmann says. “But we needed to look beyond the immediate challenges to the community’s long-term goals.”

The students were learning firsthand about the complexities of global inequities, the importance of partnerships and the value of capacity building, which are essential parts of community health nursing. They endeavoured to provide sustainable life skills that would endure long after the Calgary crew returned home.

“We came in with our assumptions and it was important for us to realize what the community actually needed,” says fellow third-year nursing student Megan VanderZwaag.

What Karmann and VanderZwaag experienced last year is known to academics as Community Service Learning (CSL). This educational approach pairs credit students with partners in their chosen fields to collaborate on a community-identified issue.

Proponents draw a clear line between CSL and other experiential activities such as co-op, work-term and field school programs. CSL participants aren’t paper pushers or tourists. They’re expected to hone their academic skills, while deepening their sense of civic engagement.

CACSL Conference

CACSL 2016 Conference

Mount Royal University will host the Canadian Alliance for Community Service Learning (CACSL) 2016 conference, bringing together students, researchers, faculty and practitioners from across Canada. The first CACSL conference took place in 2012 and is held every two years. The purpose is to enable people working in Community Service Learning to gather and share their experiences with others in the field.


It sometimes requires solving a real-life issue. Other times it can involve data analysis in the scientific realm. The subsequent output can range from a print piece to a more formal report to a presentation.

Those who’ve experienced CSL activities stress the importance of personal reflection and growth, in addition to the professional and academic outcomes.

“We want these experiences to awaken students to a love of their discipline. We want them to take it from theoretical to real,” says Mount Royal professor Victoria Calvert, a recognized trailblazer in Canada.

The CSL model can be placed under the umbrella term of experiential learning, or more simply expressed as learning by doing and reflecting. The methodology gained traction south of the border in 1971, when the White House Conference on Youth report called for stronger ties between service and learning.

U.S. lawmakers cast a brighter spotlight on CSL activities in the early 1990s by approving legislation that linked university funding with curriculum that developed student engagement in the community and citizenship behaviours.

About the same time in Canada, many academics were discussing the best model for developing ethical students with real-world skills. 

The concept resonated with colleges and religious schools that already offered so-called “servant learning.”  

In 2005, the J.W. McConnell Foundation announced funding for 10 Canadian institutions to integrate CSL within their curriculum. That initiative helped spark service learning activities at the University of Alberta, St. Francis Xavier University, Universite de Quebec a Trois Riviere and Trent University.

As a longstanding college grounded in experiential learning, Mount Royal’s specific CSL participation dates back to the mid ’90s when the business faculty grew keen on producing ethical entrepreneurs. The first graduates of the Applied Entrepreneurship degree crossed the stage in 1996, each of whom had taken three CSL courses. The concept has since flourished across the campus.

In the 2013/14 academic year alone, some 2,000 students contributed more than 200,000 hours with 350 community partners in 27 courses.

Geri Briggs, Director of the Canadian Alliance for Community Service Learning, reaffirmed Mount Royal’s high standing in the national landscape, citing the institution’s rich history, collaborative nature and holistic viewpoint as major strengths.

Briggs also credited the devoted faculty and staff members who have long maintained strong relationships with the community.

“Mount Royal University is among the leaders of community service learning in Canada,” she says.

At Mount Royal, CSL courses run the gamut of all academic disciplines and are available in every faculty. The scope of the projects can be sized up or down, depending on the professor’s preference, with additional work being tacked on to capstone courses in the students’ senior years

MRU introduces CSL citation

A CSL citation was developed in 2013 to better recognize what Mount Royal has been doing for decades. The commendation is awarded to students who complete three courses for a minimum of nine credits that employ community engagement.  CSL-designated courses entail at least 20 hours of community service, which are worth at least 15 per cent of each course grade. Some courses involve CSL projects worth 100 per cent of the course grade, requiring up to 240 hours of effort.

Almost 500 students received the CSL citation when they graduated in June 2014, with every graduate
in the Nursing, Public Relations and Information Design programs being acclaimed.

For Professor Victoria Calvert, the citation finally gave voice to a modest pillar of the Mount Royal educational experience.

“It’s part of Mount Royal’s maturity that we’re now standing up to say, ‘whoa, we really do this well,’” she says. “We are leaders in this field. We are experts in teaching it and how we’re employing it in a plethora of courses to provide a rich learning experience for our students.”

 “That experience made me realize how much I value my first language”

Dominique Simard

Some CSL experiences transcend the boundaries of a single faculty or program. That was the case for Broadcasting student Dominique Simard, who enrolled in a Languages course as part of her general education requirements. As part of her CSL-option course, Simard signed on to co-host the French Transe en Danse weekly radio program on CJSW.

Although she was a budding on-air talent, Simard was concerned her native fluency had suffered since she moved to Calgary from Sturgeon County, which boasts one of the largest populations of Francophone residents in Alberta. By immersing herself in French culture and events through her radio gig, Simard was able to reconnect with her roots.

 “That experience made me realize how much I value my first language,” she says.

“Mount Royal students are providing the tools we need to get bigger, strong and better,”

Sue Stegmeier
Executive director, Literacy for Life Foundation, High River

Another example of CSL in action is Mount Royal’s partnership with the Literacy for Life Foundation, which has used the expertise of Public Relations students to help attract longer-term volunteersthrough the creation of a professional-quality communications plan.

“Mount Royal students are providing the tools we need to get bigger, strong and better,” says Sue Stegmeier, the Foundation’s executive director. “Their help goes beyond just the front-line services being provided to our clients.”

Fourth-year Public Relations student Alyssa Briggs admitted to being “awed” to help a prairie town that’s still dealing with the stress and anxiety of Canada’s most costly natural disaster.

“Sure, you can do a communications plan for a pretend company,” Briggs says. “But it’s totally different applying those skills in real life, and helping an organization with an actual soul, vision and mission.”

At the end of the 2014 semester, Briggs and her student colleagues gathered inside an auditorium-style classroom to present their findings and plan to their client groups and Professor Allison MacKenzie. Their growth was evident. Students once nervous to step on their client’s toes were now confidently dishing out advice on everything from crisis communications to social media strategies.

“I really believe in the transformative power of CSL for students' learning,” says MacKenzie.