This story was originally published in UBC Reports, Vol. 55, No. 11 on on November 5, 2009.
By Basil Waugh
UBC student Anushka Samarawickrama is looking forward to the 2010 spring break so she can hang out with some special friends.
But you won’t find them dancing in any Fort Lauderdale conga lines this Olympic year. She and her buds are reuniting in the same place their unique relationship started one year ago: an elementary school on Vancouver’s Eastside.
Samarawickrama’s pals are the kids, teachers and fellow UBC students that she met last year during a powerful volunteer experience at Franklin Elementary. Together they played dodgeball, made fruit smoothies, jumped rope and did fun math problems in a school-wide effort to improve nutrition, fitness and learning skills.
They connected through the UBC Learning Exchange, which has been putting UBC student volunteers into schools and non-profit organizations in the Downtown Eastside and other Vancouver inner city neighborhoods since 1999. True to the program’s name, Samarawickrama says the lessons went both ways.
“Seeing up close the impact I had on these young people really moved me,” says the second-year arts student, who worked with seven boys in various grades. “There was so much that I learned, especially about the adversity some people face every day. It was a really new environment for me, but I had a lot of fun. It actually really re-energized me for school.”
This year, UBC’s annual reading break for Vancouver campus students has been extended to two weeks – from February 15 to 26 – to help accommodate the concurrent 2010 Winter Games.
Many projects will have Olympic themes to help connect children with the Games. For example, UBC students and Britannia Elementary School youth are planning Olympic-themed math stations. Other non-2010-themed projects will enhance the YWCA rooftop garden that provides fresh fruit and vegetables to women and children in the Downtown Eastside and create wellness programs at Vancouver’s Downtown Community Court.
“Although the Olympics create challenges – there is intense competition for volunteers and transportation will be more difficult – the extended reading break is an exceptional opportunity for students to engage in community service learning,” says Margo Fryer, director of the UBC Learning Exchange.
Community service learning (CSL), an educational approach UBC has helped to pioneer in Canada, combines classroom learning with volunteer work to achieve community goals.
Already home to the nation’s largest university spring break CSL initiative, UBC is planning for a record turnout in 2010. As many as 1,000 students, faculty and staff are expected to participate in more than 50 projects in Vancouver schools and non-profit organizations between January and March.
“Every year, we hear how transformative these reading week projects are – for students and residents alike,” says Fryer. “Participants are challenged to think more deeply about important community issues and gain important leadership skills. It is a learning experience we want as many students as possible to have.”
According to National Survey of Student Engagement founder George Kuh, CSL is one of the top things universities can do to get undergraduate students more engaged in their learning. Research also suggests CSL has positive effects on teamwork, academic performance, civic engagement and interpersonal communication.
“All my students have passions and interests, but because of the challenges of inner city life, they can’t always pursue them,” says Steve Agabob, principal of Mount Pleasant Elementary School, a five-year UBC Reading Week partner. “Our students really connect with the UBC students and they produce awesome work together. University suddenly seems like an attainable goal for them. It’s a match made in heaven for us.”
The UBC Learning Exchange’s growth is part of a university-wide commitment to develop CSL programs that engage 10 per cent of UBC students every year by 2014.
$1.4 million of HSBC Bank Canada’s recent $2.17 million gift to UBC supports UBC Learning Exchange programs where students volunteer in literacy, math and science projects in Eastside elementary schools.
School-based volunteer teams will be led by UBC staff and senior students as well as employees from SAP Canada (formerly Business Objects), which has also provided financial support for the Reading Week projects.
The Learning Exchange receives support from a variety of UBC partners, including Student Development, Human Resources and External, Legal, and Community Relations. Learn more at www.learningexchange.ubc.ca/community-service-learning.