As an institution with roots in the community for almost 200 years, U of T has grown and evolved along side the city of Toronto. Now, more than ever before, there is a push for this relationship to become closer, more interconnected, and more involved. The city of Toronto and U of T still have a lot to learn from, and to teach each other, to the benefit of us all.

In 2015, President Meric Gertler announced his top priorities for the University’s students. Drawing from his experience as a professor of Geography and Planning and as co-founder of a large research program at the Munk School of Global Affairs, he wanted to see the institution leverage its urban location more fully, for the mutual benefit of university and city, and to reimagine and reinvent undergraduate education.

“Members of the university community have expressed tremendous support for the idea that we should play a larger and more visible role in city building,” said Gertler. “We need to build stronger linkages to the communities around us, while enhancing the connections among urban scholars across our three campuses.”

The work by U of T’s Centre for Community Partnerships (CCP) is a great place to see these priorities in practice. Lisa Chambers, Director of the CCP describes their role as “creating meaningful learning opportunities for students in partnership with Toronto’s community organizations where student learning and community capacity is enhanced.” They use a Community-Engaged (Service) Learning approach that combines community service with academic work and reflection.  The CCP supports instructors with consultation on course design, securing placements, aligning reflection assignments with course goals, insurance processes and more.

For Mariajosé López Mejía, involvement with the CCP began when she was a student in the Equity Studies Program. It allowed her to step out of her comfort zone and challenge the root causes of society’s biggest issues.

“The kind of volunteering I wanted to do was something really connected to the community in a way that was genuine and reciprocal,” she says.

She now works at CCP as a project assistant helping secure Community-Engaged Learning placements for students and encouraging others to work for what they believe in.

So far, 20,000 undergraduate and graduate students have taken a CCP-supported course taught using a service-learning approach, spanning 34 academic disciplines across all three U of T campuses. The CCP also offers a range of workshops that invite students to think about intercultural communication, conflict resolution, reflection, and their role in the community. Reflection is a key component of service-learning, and allows students to make deeper meaning of their experiences and connections to course content.

“I feel like service-learning has been an innovation in undergraduate education for quite a while and it’s really nice to be able to see it as a presidential priority,” says Lisa Chambers.

Walter Cavalieri, Director of The Canadian Harm Reduction Network, is committed to reciprocal learning, in which students help each other work through activities. As a valued CCP partner for seven years – working in harm reduction, drug policy and law reform – they make a big impact on the community with the help of U of T student volunteers.

“I think it’s such a great idea and so important to get younger people to understand what we’re doing,” he says. “They’re the ones who are going to change the world,” says Cavalieri.

The Cities podcast series, produced by University of Toronto Communications, offers a different perspective on interacting with the community. The podcast embraces the idea of the university engaging in an actual dialogue with the broader community. The series explores both the physical city and the idea of cities in a broader sense with episode topics ranging from traffic and transit to the building of sustainable cities and the future of cities.

Using a mix of academics, experts, activists, artists, and regular citizens, it examines the complex ideas surrounding cities and the people who inhabit them. While the podcasts relate to cities in general, they also deal with issues facing Toronto specifically.

To help with implementing U of T’s priorities, President Gertler appointed Dr. Shauna Brail, Associate Professor, Teaching Stream in the Urban Studies Program at U of T, as Presidential Advisor on Urban Engagement.

The Urban Studies Program has always been a very strong proponent of experiential learning and supporting students’ learning outside of the classroom. The fourth year internship course is one of the longest running experiential learning courses at the university.

The class follows four modules – local government, economic development, community development and urban planning. Students attend a weekly seminar and spend eight hours a week at their internship site.

Once per module students leave the classroom and go on a field trip. Field trips have included a walking tour of Regent Park with a community-engagement worker and a trip to Mirvish Village with a developer to discuss the links between economic development and real estate.

When it comes to the priority of rethinking undergraduate education, Dr. Brail believes there is a real emphasis on helping students think through the skills they’re obtaining in university and how those skills can be transferred or translated into both professional skills and employability skills.

“Whether it’s a internship or a placement or field trip or a guest lecturer coming in from one of these organizations – that’s helping our undergraduates to see the possibilities and to develop aspirations that they might not have otherwise considered,” says Dr. Brail.

For Alison Chan, her first experience with Service-Learning was as an undergraduate urban studies major enrolled in professor Brail’s Urban Experiential Learning in Toronto & the GTA. This involved working with a community organization for a full academic year and submitting projects that tied together in-class material with reflections on the hands-on learning experience.

She says, “Education should be something that stays with you throughout your life, constantly enhancing and challenging your way of thinking. Service-Learning did this for me. A textbook did not.”

According to Dr. Brail, “Cities are having a real moment, obviously, it’s a really exciting time for someone who’s been studying cities and is excited about cities. There are a lot of challenges that are focused in cities and those challenges are both important for us to think about – how we might work to solving them and addressing them – and at the same time provide an amazing educational opportunity for our students to learn and get involved and to be creative and innovative in the way that we approach them.”

For today’s students, who will become tomorrow’s leaders, thinkers, planners, and activists, helping shape the city through grassroots involvement provides a real learning experience. As the university and the city continue their commitment to actively engage in growing and evolving together, the outcome can only be positive for everyone.