Experiential education grows exponentially at York

Hands-on, practical experience is proving not only beneficial to students, but also to a wide variety of business and not-for-profit organizations. Over the last year at York, the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies’ Experiential Education (EE) program has dramatically increased in size and scope as more students complete a wide array of projects for course credit across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

The burgeoning program has proven so successful that York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden (right) has made a personal gift to the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies to establish the Experiential Education Innovator Fund.

"I am happy to support this important project," said Marsden. "These invaluable learning experiences will bring unique benefits to many York students."

The new EE Innovator Fund aims to support faculty members who are already participating in the EE program and encourage others to start. Faculty members can apply immediately for grants from the fund to help pay for resources necessary to incorporate experiential education into their courses. The benefits of the EE program are many. It provides opportunities to bridge the knowledge acquired in the classroom with hands-on learning opportunities. It enhances the quality of education. It expands community-university collaboration and it builds capacity in the region through activities such as service learning and internships.

To offer the grant in perpetuity, the Faculty will be approaching individuals, corporations and foundations to invest in a $100,000 endowment. According to Atkinson Dean Rhonda Lenton, the president’s gift signals to others the value York places on providing enriched learning opportunities for students.

York’s Experiential Education program: How it works

Since 2006, over 1,000 students and 175 organizations have been matched – working together on a diverse range of case studies and endeavours that enhance students’ academic skills while building professional competencies. Organizations range in size and focus: recent participants include St. Michael’s Hospital, Epilepsy Toronto, BMO, The Toronto Arts Council, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Bata Shoe Museum and the AIDS Committee of Toronto. Such organizations benefit from the advantage of having up-to-date academic knowledge and research at their fingertips, while being provided the opportunity to mentor upcoming business and community leaders.

"Experiential Education is a great way for students to gain practical experience prior to graduation while learning more about their strengths, abilities and career opportunities," said Lenton (left). "Students work on projects and ‘live’ case studies that can actually affect an organization’s strategic initiatives. EE students have the chance to learn from some of the industry’s top-tier professionals, while providing organizations with valuable academic insight."

EE projects are embedded into the curriculum – students work off-campus and meet their EE host organization three to five times over a semester to work with them on projects such as a variety of accounting endeavours, developing marketing strategies, addressing human resource challenges and helping out with community service learning initiatives. (See the Nov. 8, 2006 issue of YFile.)

Last September, a group of students from an EE course in social marketing developed a project with UNICEF Canada aimed at raising awareness amongst high-school students about HIV and AIDS infection rates in the developing world. The project was very successful; and this semester UNICEF has teamed up with Atkinson again to work with 50 York students in a fourth-year market research course. The students gathered research information and assessed GTA high-school students’ volunteer and fundraising behaviours and perceptions to identify factors that would support UNICEF’s future engagement with teens in fundraising, education and advocacy.

"This particular EE project is not only valuable for UNICEF, but also for students since they, as alumni, may find themselves working on similar initiatives," said Andreas Strebinger (right), professor of marketing, School of Administrative Studies, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies.  "In-class projects tied to time sensitive initiatives of actual organizations give students extra motivation; they get to see their ideas put into actual practice instead of just having them theorized through academic papers and assignments."

Waqaas Hashmi, a third-year student, has just completed his third EE course, and provided his expertise on the UNICEF project. Hashmi has already worked with a number of organizations in the past, finding the experience invaluable.

"The practical experience of completing a project for UNICEF has helped me tremendously in solidifying the concepts I have learned during class," said Hashmi. "Because our project is about more than just marks, we take away so much more from this class than we could in any normal lecture-style course."

Projects like the UNICEF initiative are excellent preparation for students wishing to enter Atkinson’s EE internship program. In fact, Hashmi recently secured an internship employment offer from the Canadian Employee Relocation Council. Using key concepts learned in the classroom and applied in the field, students enhance their academic and professional capabilities across a number of disciplines including accounting, human resources, marketing and sociology. This concrete experience allows students to examine and suggest valuable business recommendations that organizations can implement. Students gain insight into daily business and organizational challenges while reflecting on their capabilities and upcoming career choices.

"EE projects are a great way to prepare students for the internship experience," said Geoff Webb (right) manager of Atkinson’s Experiential Education. "As interns, prospective employers expect students to have a certain level of experience. A lot of university-level courses provide students with the theoretical knowledge they require, but traditional courses are not always able to give them practical, hands-on opportunities. An EE project with an organization like the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, the University Health Network, or the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation provides students with something very valuable to put on their resumé."

Catherine Drillis, manager, Marketing Services, Volunteer Toronto, sees the value of EE from direct experience. "Our EE team had an interesting perspective on our marketing initiatives," said Drillis. "They came up with some great ideas. We were impressed with their insights and are now in the process of implementing a number of their suggestions."

Fourth-year student Mike Fong (right) completed an EE social marketing course prior to securing an internship at Eloqua, an automated marketing firm in downtown Toronto. His experience has helped refine his approaches to handling clients, meeting deadlines and working well with a diverse team. Fong is currently working as a paid marketing specialist, creating marketing campaigns, helping out with brochures, working with databases and conducting follow up e-mails from city tours. One of his marketing initiatives was recently used by Eloqua to help attract people to their booth at a marketing event in Miami.

"Internships are extremely valuable," said Fong. "Most students at the senior level have theoretical experience but are lacking the practical experience employers require. Nowadays, employers are looking for the best and brightest individuals to fill employment positions. They need students who are not just book smart but who have practical experience too."

This semester, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce took part in the EE program for the implementation of new accounting standards. "The team produced a first-class report with recommendations tailored to our organizational context, some of which we intend to implement," said Adèle Laronde, vice-president & CFO, Canadian Chamber of Commerce. "We were very pleased with the students’ professionalism and overall performance.

"This is an excellent program that provides a unique opportunity for tomorrow’s business leaders to apply their newly acquired knowledge and benefit from practical hands-on experience," said Laronde. "As the voice of Canadian business, the Canadian Chamber is proud to play a role in the success of this valuable initiative."

For more information, visit the Atkinson Experiential Education Program Web site or contact Geoff Webb at ext. 33453 or gwebb@yorku.ca.