Young woman stands in front of bustling boardroom.

Janelle Lee & Stephanie Spafford, CSL interns

Image: Janelle Lee at a Sustainable Food Edmonton board of directors meeting.

The Non-Profit Board Internship Program, offered by Community Service-Learning, pairs University of Alberta students with NGOs and charities in Edmonton. Integrating this volunteer work with additional coursework, students learn about board governance, democratic decision-making, NGO culture and everything else behind-the-scenes that helps run Edmonton’s vibrant voluntary sector. 

Sustainable Food Edmonton (SFE) has been an enthusiastic participant in the program. In 2012-13, they hosted Stephanie Spafford, a history student and Sustain SU volunteer who is now an alumna working with the Alberta government. In 2013-14, conservation science student Janelle Lee took over the same internship and is now close to complete.

Where does your interest in sustainability issues come from?

JL: My interest in the environment primarily comes from school, from being in the Faculty of ALES. Especially this year, school has put me in this program with Sustainable Food Edmonton-- I went to study in rural India for Alternative Reading Week, went to the Edmonton Waste Centre during Sustainability Awareness Week—it’s all really opened my eyes.

SS: For me, it actually goes way back—my father was a huge advocate of turning off lights, recycling, etc. But when I came to university, like most first and second years I didn’t pay much attention to anything outside of my studies. Later, when I started focusing on the history of slavery, I started to see the social context of things. I got interested in the intersection of economics, environmental and social issues and I realized how we could use the really productive discourse of sustainability to handle this big range of different issues.

What got you interested in doing an internship with Community Service-Learning (CSL)?

SS: I’m a very practical person. When I found out about CSL, I immediately fell in love with the idea of it: bridging coursework with volunteer work in the community. It made my degree practical. You build a resume, make community connections and learn skills that you can apply in the real world.

JL: The Faculty of ALES really emphasizes student engagement in the community. But our courses always promote the idea of getting involved, while leaving it up to you to take the initiative to find out what’s out there. So that’s why I got interested in CSL. I was seeing other students involved in these non-profit groups and programs, and thought this is interesting, I should do this.

Group sitting and standing in circle outdoors in India rural village.

Photo: ALES Alternative Reading Week in India, 2013

How does community service-learning fit into your understanding of sustainability?

SS: CSL is volunteer work, participating in the community, helping out non-profit organizations. You’re participating in the social aspect of sustainability. All volunteering is this really important support for society; it just makes us more sustainable as a community, city and province. When students come in with their knowledge, they’re able to share that. The fascinating thing about CSL and sustainability is how they’re so intertwined. For me, doing CSL is a sustainable learning practice, they just combine perfectly.

JL: CSL makes learning about sustainability more fun! When I went to India (that was a CSL course too), getting out there and talking to tribal villages and learning how they’ve been displaced from their forests, making compost, going to their local college to learn about food security… all of that was just way more real and exciting than if I had read about it in a textbook.

How have you benefited from community-engaged learning?

JL: CSL helps me understand the bigger picture and context of what we’re learning, showing why it’s important. Plus, I’m more motivated to learn because I’m directly engaged in the subject. Now, when I sit in a regular lecture I find it’s just really unengaging. Here’s the Powerpoint, there’s the textbook, here take an exam. Afterward I forget half the things I’ve learned, it doesn’t stick with me. So I don’t think that’s very sustainable if you’re not retaining anything. Or maybe you want to apply what you learned but don’t know how. It’s a lot harder to make those connections without something like CSL.

SS: A lot of time and resources goes into educating people who aren’t going to use what they’ve learned at all. You should be able to apply what you’ve learned or be able to contextualize it and mold it into your future job paths. CSL sets you up to be able to do that. Without the volunteer experiences I got through CSL I probably wouldn’t have got any of the jobs I’ve got now.

How can others on campus make university education more sustainable?

JL: Students, take more CSL courses! Professors, bring CSL into your courses!

SS: One issue is that not enough people know that CSL is an option. People still ask me: “you have a Certificate in Community Engagement and Service-Learning? What’s that?” There needs to be a school-wide push to integrate this kind of community engagement into more of the program requirements. Especially in the hard sciences, where students’ course loads are so intense, how can you expect them to be volunteering on the side, to be a part of the Edmonton community? The University of Alberta has 30,000 students—just imagine how much of impact we could have if every student volunteered just one hour for the community.