Sector Cluster Network is one key to experiential education

Will Gage, York University’s associate vice-president, teaching and learning, served as host of another successful Sector Cluster Network luncheon Nov. 8, bringing together employers from York Region and network partners at YSpace in Markham with the goal of fostering relationships that will result in experiential education opportunities for York students.

Will Gage

“These events are a manifestation of the success of the network,” said Gage. “Our partners in York Region and the municipalities are giving us warm introductions to companies across the region and it’s up to us to explain to them how what we do can benefit them.”

Kathleen Winningham, director of the YU Experience Hub, whose staff organizes the network’s outreach events, said, “Our goal is to educate employers about the breadth of skills our students have and that they can find at York, and to familiarize them with the programs we offer.

Kathleen Winningham

“As a result of these events,” she continued, “there are additional internship and co-op opportunities available for students. Experiential education is a pillar of York’s academic plan, and part of increasing student opportunities is having these really strong connections through the Sector Cluster Network.”

Created in 2017, the Sector Cluster Network grew out of discussions between Gage and Professor Angelo Belcastro, Chair of the School of Kinesiology and Health Science and former executive director of the Markham Campus, about experiential education and its place in academic programming. The network is a partnership between the University, the economic development units of municipal and regional governments, York Region Community and Health Services, chambers of commerce, ventureLAB and York Region employers, whether they are corporations, government entities or not-for-profit organizations, for the purposes of expanding experiential education and other joint ventures.

Associate Vice-President Teaching and Learning, Will Gage, leads a brainstorming session at the Sector Cluster Network luncheon

“As Angelo has said, experiential education is typically like a condiment on a post-secondary education meal,” Gage said. “Angelo wanted it to be an actual course served as part of the meal. However, if we elevated expectations without creating opportunities for students, we’d disappoint them, so we needed to find a way to do both simultaneously.

“We realized we had partners in York Region with their fingers on the pulse of economic development and the needs of the community, and we started to talk with them about working together to benefit both students and employers across the region.”

Angelo Belcastro

With an aging population in York Region and an increasing number of companies there requiring skills based in the knowledge economy, it seemed to Gage like a good fit.

“I think that increasing the opportunities for our students to engage in work-integrated learning and experiential education is critical to the success of the time they are at York,” Gage said. “We are doing everything we can to continue to create these opportunities and increase their value to both students and employers.”

Looking back at his own undergraduate days, Gage can’t say enough about the value of hands-on experience.

“Reflecting on my co-op program, I realize that I learned just as much about what I didn’t want to do in my career as what I did want,” he said. “Additionally, in an environment where you are engaged with people in a real-world context, you learn how to act in the workplace and how to be professional, while gaining skills that you can add to your resume to make yourself more competitive.”

With about 49,000 employers in York Region, the University has barely scratched the surface of experiential education possibilities, and Gage is looking to the Sector Cluster Network to open more of those doors. This model underpinned the success of York’s applications for provincial funding under Ontario’s Career Ready Fund, which is serving to enhance experiential education across the University.

“Through all of these meetings, we’re teaching the world out there about York University, the diversity of its programs and the talents of our students,” he said. “We have work still to do to tell York’s story.”

By Elaine Smith, special contributing writer to Innovatus