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Community experience confirms student's goal to work in human rights

“I’ve learned how important it is to speak up about things, ask questions about everything, and have confidence in your opinions,” says Maria Weigt-Bienzle (photo by Diana Tyszko)

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned for certain from this course, it’s that I’m on the right career path.”

That’s the overarching assessment of fourth-year peace, conflict and justice studies student Maria Weigt-Bienzle who spent the past academic year with international media development agency Journalists for Human Rights (JHR).

Weigt-Bienzle had an eye towards working in international development, and was anxious to start putting into practice some of the skills and concepts she’d learned about previously, particularly in a third-year course on human rights. Given her interests in justice and humanitarian development, working with JHR was a perfect fit. The non-governmental organization trains journalists, primarily in developing countries, to make more effective use of media to spread awareness of human rights.

The opportunity was made available through New College’s community-engaged learning seminar, which places students with partner organizations across Toronto. The course provides them with opportunities to engage in community service or social advocacy, and encourages them to challenge themselves and think critically about social justice issues.

“I work with the international programs team at JHR for about eight hours every week, helping them with whatever tasks they have on the go on the days I’m there,” says Weigt-Bienzle. “That could be anything from researching a grant proposal for funding, translating documents from French to English, or creating spreadsheets to visualize the results of their international projects.”

“I spent one day on the phone speaking French with CEOs of organizations in Haiti researching options for launching new programs there. That was nerve-wracking.”

Weigt-Bienzle and her fellow students, who have been working at a variety of community partner organizations, also meet as a class to discuss concepts of social justice and community engagement with teacher Linzi Manicom, coordinator of New College’s Community Engaged Learning Program.

“It’s more like therapy, where we sit in a circle and express our feelings about what we’ve been doing,” she says. “Linzi really encourages us to dig deep. We’ve become more aware of social justice issues happening in Toronto and beyond, and we’ve learned to think critically about who we are and the role we play in creating social justice.”

A key part of the work for students in service-learning courses is to reflect on their placement experiences and articulate what it is they are learning, through writing exercises that enable them to make connections between classroom discussions and on-job-experiences.

“Paying attention to their emotional responses helps students identify those moments when values and assumptions are unsettled, and can be opened up for consideration,” says Manicom.

It’s the culmination of those exercises that has helped Weigt-Bienzle cement her sense of vocation.

“I’ve learned how important it is to speak up about things, ask questions about everything, and have confidence in your opinions,” she says. “And I’ve already begun to acquire experience in what I want to do.”

Following graduation, Weigt-Bienzle expects to take a break from school to gain more work experience. After that, she hopes to pursue graduate studies at the London School of Economics and looks forward to eventually putting her passion to work wherever it is most needed.

“I’ll go wherever my job takes me,” she says proudly.

Sean Bettam is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.