Graduate students share expertise with community organizations

Partnerships were the key to providing 30 York University graduate students with the opportunity to apply their research skills and knowledge to real-world situations, an experience they’ll be celebrating together this month.

With the help of an Academic Innovation Fund (AIF) grant, the Knowledge Mobilization Unit (KMb) forged a partnership with the Faculty of Graduate Studies to provide the students their own partnership opportunities with community organizations where they designed programs or improvements to public policy, professional practices and/or social programs.

Michael Johnny
Michael Johnny

“These internships hit a really good sweet spot,” says Michael Johnny, York’s manager of Knowledge Mobilization. “It was an opportunity for the community organizations to get high impact research done by graduate students who have really strong research skills and a commitment to engaging outside the university.”

Johnny ran a similar program back in 2010, and some of the outcomes still resonate. For example, a protocol developed for checking on vulnerable Toronto residents during extreme heat alerts found its way through Toronto Public Health and is now used to guide community organizations.

“The impact can take time, but the work these interns do goes beyond the ability to publish their results,” Johnny says.

The recent internship program paired students with organizations that included the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Spinal Cord Injury Ontario. At the school board, the intern explored the provision of services to augment the well-being of its students. The work involved researching programs and services in other jurisdictions and determining how to translate student needs into programs, services and curricular supports.

The Trillium Foundation relied upon its intern to develop indicators of program success for a variety of program areas, while two graduate students worked with Spinal Cord Injury Ontario to collect, review and evaluate client feedback on the organization’s services in order to identify gaps and explore service opportunity.

“When the research question is clear and you can demonstrate a strong partnership, the researchers can go really far, really fast,” Johnny says.

The internships were paid opportunities and the application process was competitive. Graduate students were required to submit an application in conjunction with a non-academic partner and to clearly articulate the research question and the role they would play in answering it. KMb and the Faculty of Graduate Studies adjudicated the applications, looking at the organization’s needs, the fit between student and community partner and the potential for the work to make an impact.

“In some cases, the students had done work with the organization previously, but in other cases, our offices brokered support,” Johnny says. “We generally get 50 requests annually asking for collaboration on a larger research question.”

Once the students signed onto their projects, KMb staff met with them to discuss the administrative parameters of the program. The staff also provided them with support in the form of monthly networking sessions, along with training opportunities, and were available for guidance and feedback throughout their projects.

Johnny is delighted with the project and would like to explore the possibility of expanding it across the campus.

“The AIF grant was a significant opportunity for us to test this model,” he says. “The university and its partners may want to invest in it on an ongoing basis.”

The program’s clients at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario would undoubtedly agree, given their successful experience.

“Partnering with York on this internship program allowed us to better understand the gaps in service that people with a spinal cord injury face in rural areas of Ontario,” they told Johnny. “With this new knowledge, we can put in place strategies to close these gaps to create greater equity and a more inclusive Ontario.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributor to Innovatus