U of T news

Five U of T programs that strengthen the Toronto community

Service learning opportunities available across several disciplines

Volunteers at IMAGINE Clinic, the first student-run and student-led health clinic. (photo courtesy of Enoch Ng)

Using university-acquired skills to improve lives in the community doesn’t have to wait until after graduation. For many students at U of T, enlivening the city with expertise and passion is already a part of their studies—benefitting both their learning process and the community around them. 

“Working in the community keeps us connected to the heart of why we are studying in the first place,” says Enoch Ng, a fourth-year in the combined MD/PhD program.

Ng is involved with IMAGINE (Interprofessional Medical and Allied Groups for Improving Neighbourhood Environments) Clinic, Canada’s first student-run and student-led health clinic. The clinic promotes and provides holistic healthcare for those with little social support in downtown Toronto. 

“Applying what we learn in the classroom to the community is what really consolidates learning so it is not just words in a textbook, but something we have seen with our own eyes, felt the impact of with our own hearts, and used to make a difference with our own hands,” says Ng.

(Learn more about IMAGINE Clinic) 

Service learning – the combination of formal learning and in-community service – has become popular among eager students wanting to impact the community while studying.

Especially for upper-year students, egaer to put their skills to work and restless from years in the classroom alone.

“After so many years of education, we become much too familiar with the chairs inside the lecture halls that we sometimes become disconnected from the world outside,” says Gary Yang, a third-year student from University of Toronto Mississauga’s Academy of Medicine.

“Whether we are learning to be lawyers, engineers, architects, musicians or gymnasts; our future is intertwined with our community.”

Yang hopes to do so through Adventures in Science, a Mississauga-based community outreach program. The scientific engagement program aimed at youth has influenced more than 300 students in the Peel Region.

(Learn more about Adventures in Science) 

Engineering students can partake in the Engineering Strategies and Practices (ESP) course which incorporates service learning by following through with a design project from start to finish.

“ESP was one of the most useful courses, simply because it was practical,” says Maria Xirui Xie, a first-year electrical and computer engineering student. “This course created an environment very similar to the environment that engineers may potentially work in.”

Through ESP, students are assigned to local clients where they put their engineering expertise to work. In the past, students have taken on projects such as designing safer scaffolding for construction sites, making a house more dog-accessible and devising a new process that makes it easier to package dried foods.

“Students find the experience of the course extremely challenging. But after a few years – and more real world experience – they often say that ESP was where they learned the most important basic skills,” says Peter Weiss, ESP communication coordinator.”

(Learn more about ESP) 

New College’s Community Engaged Learning Program (CEL) allows students to work a few hours each week with a community partnered organization. Students integrate classroom knowledge with workplace experience to explore ethical and social justice issues present in the workplace.

“My service learning experience allowed me to connect on a personal level with a marginalized population that I had previously learned about only through my academic work,” says Kousha Azimi, a human biology student who had a placement with The Coffee Shed and Common Ground Cooperative.

“As a science student, I have rarely been exposed to questions of social justice and community activism in my academic work,” says Roman Zyla, a pharmacology student who worked at Toronto General Hospital through CEL. “The class discussions and assignments in the CEL program were pivotal in introducing me to the importance of these concepts and strongly shaped the way I reflect on issues in the biomedical field."

“CEL course assignments prompt students to make meaning and think critically about all aspects of what they are experiencing, to identify and question their own and others’ assumptions, to figure out the relationships of power and inequality that lurk in the way that social contexts are shaped,” says Linzi Manicom, CEL coordinator.

(Learn more about CEL) 

The Faculty of Arts and Science offers service learning opportunities embedded into many courses including, Cornerstones in Social Justice for St. Michael's One program students and New College's Buddhism and Psychology.

“The best part of service learning is how efficient it is,” explains Jessie Ji Huang, a third year architectural studies undergraduate student.

Huang previously enrolled in Introduction to Urban Studies—a course which features optional service learning with non-profit organizations such as food banks, community shelters and community centers.

“It's this rare activity where you simultaneously reify class concepts, explore others' lives, contribute to the city, and get class credit, and meet new people,” says Huang.

“It's studying in Robarts except more fun, more effective, and better for your city.”