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The University of Toronto is training new leaders by having them learn-while-doing out in the city

Making beds, delivering food, and washing dishes are activities you might not normally associate with a university education, but for students in one University of Toronto class, it's all part of the learning experience. For the past three years, Professor Shauna Brail has incorporated "service learning" into her "Introduction to Urban Studies Class," giving students the opportunity to actively participate in Toronto's civic life.

Here's how it works: a small group of students (usually between 4 and 12) are assigned to a Toronto nonprofit or government office where they commit to 10 hours of work over a two month period. The placements covers the length of the city, both geographically and socially; from Parkdale to Kingsway, from food banks to city councilor's offices. And, as Professor Brail explains, the duties involved run the gamut too, with some students answering phones, others organizing food hampers. "I even had one student learn to do laundry," she says.

Learning to do laundry isn't the kind of skill you would expect to learn in a student placement but that's the point: service learning is not an internship. "Unlike internships which generally require a significant time commitment and a focus on building professional capacity, service learning focuses on volunteering and relationship building."

These short volunteering stints can have profound effects on the way students understand the city. Taylor Brydges, a student who was placed at the Fort York Food Bank (FYFB) last year -- and has continued to volunteer there ever since -- found that her volunteering experience not only made academic concepts clearer it also opened her eyes to a part of Toronto she's never seen.

"It's not just about breaking down bread, that's a really simple task. But going to [Fort York] for me -- I come from the suburbs -- also opened up a whole new neighbourhood and community to me. The whole time you're working there you're also watching people and listening to stories. And you see that you're part of something bigger."

Before his placement with emergency shelter program Out of The Cold Sean Kuzniak was under the impression that homelessness was limited to downtown "but the Out of the Cold [location] I went to was in the West end, near Bloor and Royal York. I was quite surprised that there were people from the area that needed assistance, and even more surprised once I saw just how many this program actually served every night."

In just 10 hours at these community organizations students come away with greater sense of Toronto -- the places, the people, and the stories -- that make it what it is. "Most university students -- most not all -- come from middle class backgrounds and a lot of them have misperceptions of particular neighbourhoods in Toronto and what different communities are like or why people are homeless or why people might need to use the food bank," say Professor Brail. "But after service learning they almost uniformly come back and say 'wow'. I see it really differently now. They come back with a greater sense of what's around them and what they can contribute."

And they certainly do contribute. Urban Studies students, already naturally interested in the city around them, make for the perfect volunteers. "It's helpful to have the [University of Toronto] students here because the students come with certain learning goals and they're naturally interested in the groups and the populations were working with. We don't have to select them or do any selling of the program," says Lisa Wong, a volunteer coordinator with St. Christopher's House.

St. Christopher's House has hosted the U of T students for three years and had them do everything from tutoring, after school programming and participating in an English conversation circle. 

"They're naturally interested in working with inner city kids. They're naturally interest in working with at risk youth. You have a more curious set and a more engaged set of volunteers."

And, Wong says, the organizations are able to learn from the students too: "For us as workers in the field it's also helpful to be interacting with students looking at the city from a more academic background."

Partnerships with organizations are almost always continued the following academic year and the service learning program has received funding from the Faculty of Arts and Science Curriculum Renewal Initiative Fund.

The greatest testament to the program's success is a significant amount of students continue to volunteer where they were placed. They stick around so long, in fact, Professor Brail says they're there to meet the next crop of volunteers. "What's really exciting is that for the past two years, at all our repeat organizations, I've had a former student working as a volunteer leading a group of current students."

Katia Snukal is Yonge Street's In The News editor.

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