Community Engagement Office Profile: Michaelle Jean Centre for Global and Community Engagement

By Ahmed Badrawy, CCEC Communications Assistant

July 2020

This month we profile Alexandra Baril, who is the Community Engagement Manager at the University of Ottawa.

For over four years Alexandra has managed the Community Service Learning (CSL) program at the University of Ottawa, which is an academic program that offers students experiential learning through professor-approved community placements. An important figure in the community, Alexandra has helped to build community-campus partnerships by connecting community partners to professors and students, while ensuring that community needs are addressed.

What is the CSL program? What is your role?

“I’m part of a Community Engagement Team on campus [University of Ottawa] and our mandate is to connect students to community organizations’ needs and priorities through volunteer placements. The CSL program is an opportunity for students to complete a minimum of 30 hours of engagement as part of their course, and to reflect on their learning. Every year thousands of uOttawa students get engaged with community organizations, who have partnered with us to recruit volunteers, so that they can, for example, support running programs online, complete research, develop communication material, or provide front-line service support. At the end of the day, it’s about connecting students to those opportunities so that they may contribute to issues they are passionate about and to develop their skills. We work closely with organizations to determine what their needs are and to find the right way to promote that need to students.”

How has the CSL program adjusted since the COVID-19 pandemic?

“In the summer, we’ve worked with both returning CSL professors (what we call our CSL Champions) and new professors who wanted to take the leap with our program in an online course. Professors who consider integrating an experiential learning opportunity are often big champions of community engagement and this summer many of them understood that the organization needs were still there and worked with us to see how to best integrate this opportunity for students at a distance. One of the big changes for us and the CSL program is that we stopped offering in-person placements to prioritize distance and virtual placements.”

Has it been more difficult or easier transitioning your work online?

“I think every organization has a different reality but, for us, we knew that the needs in the community continued to exist, and we needed to find out how those needs would be changing given the exceptional situation. A particular network we are a part of that has been really helpful is the Ontario CSL network, made up of practitioners of community service learning or experiential learning. As a network we’ve been able to share ideas and practices to figure out how to best run our programs, how to ensure quality campus-community engagement, and to ask ‘how does that compare between campuses’.”

Do you plan on continuing operations in the Fall?

“Yes, students will continue having the option to volunteer at a distance or virtually this Fall. We have professors and courses registered for CSL and we are doing follow-ups with partners to understand how we can best support them and try to line up those needs with potential placements for students. The biggest difference is that for now we are focused on distance and virtual placements.”

Although the CSL program had to immediately adjust to continue operations online due to COVID-19 restrictions, Alexandra and the CSL team at the University of Ottawa have shown great success in maintaining and evolving their work while also continuing to contribute to the community’s development. The CSL program has shown to play a crucial role in community engagement by connecting community partners to professors and students in order to fulfil community needs and solve common issues.