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March 9, 2018

Wilfrid Laurier University Associate Professor Kim Rygiel wants her students to know they can create changes locally that make an impact globally.

Rygiel, a member of Laurier's Department of Political Science and associate director of the Laurier-led International Migration Research Centre, specializes in research about issues facing refugees, including migration, integration, xenophobia and racism.

In 2016, Rygiel began embedding ways of addressing these issues in community service-learning (CSL) projects as part of her social advocacy classes in Laurier's Master of Applied Politics program. Rygiel's first CSL course saw students organize events, create a communications campaign and develop a social media kit for the United Nations' World Refugee Day, organized locally in Waterloo Region by the Community Coalition on Refugee and Immigrant Concerns and the World Refugee Day Planning Committee.

"Facing these issues requires students to exercise an understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities of newcomers," says Rygiel. "Students experience a new level of responsibility in being accountable to not just their instructor and peers, but the organization and its clients."

Last year, students in Rygiel's class "PO 610: Social Advocacy" worked with Reception House Waterloo Region, a non-profit organization serving government-assisted refugees during their first year in Canada, enabling them to settle, integrate and lead healthy and stable lives in their new community through connections to social supports.

"CSL and other forms of community and workplace partnerships inspire students to consider perspectives and pathways outside of their lived experiences," says Rygiel. "I can't say enough about the level of support and professional advisement I received from the CSL team."

The project consisted of students researching, interviewing and creating a report about refugee employment in Kitchener-Waterloo. Rygiel's class of 16 researched the process refugees go through to find work, including exploring employment support services available, conducting focus groups with newcomers seeking employment and identifying gaps and challenges in the process.

"The chance to do a project like this was profoundly important to me," says Farhiya Dalmar, a master's student in Laurier's Religion, Culture and Global Justice program. "The individuals and groups of people we interviewed taught us so much about the challenges refugees face to find employment after settling in Canada."

Reception House Waterloo Region celebrated 30 years in the community in 2017. The organization faced significant change and challenges during the beginning of the Syrian refugee crisis, with an influx of refugees arriving in Kitchener-Waterloo. Part of the organization's strategy for accommodating a growing need for services and assistance included building strategic relationships with local colleges and universities.

Carl Cadogan, executive director of Reception House Waterloo Region, said partnering with Laurier on academic research initiatives has opened many doors for the organization.

"The report produced by the students highlighted the gaps in refugee employment services that we know exist but hadn't been formally recognized," says Cadogan.

"The students helped us to build a road map for success for refugees who were facing roadblocks when accessing traditional employment-service pathways," says Cadogan.

Cadogan and his colleague Lynne Griffiths-Fulton, director of programs and settlement, say the report is a tool that will support them in efforts to address gaps in services, as well as in advocating on behalf of the agency's refugee clients. Recommendations made in the report will be operationalized through Reception House Waterloo Region's advocacy committee.

"This course gave me the chance to work on a research project in conditions that were as close as possible to what it would be like to work on a project in a consulting firm," says Thomas Wood, a first-year student in the Master of Applied Politics program. "The research mattered, the deadlines were real and I learned so much about the topic and myself."

The opportunity for students to reflect on personal and professional growth is a key component of any form of experiential learning. During the Reception House Waterloo Region project, students maintained a reflective journal, which became part of their final grade.

"The reflection journal served as their field notes," says Rygiel. "The intentional, repeated reflections made students think more deeply about their learning, helped them keep track of their growth and gave them observation skills that they can use beyond this course and into their future academic and professional pursuits." 

For more information about Laurier's community service-learning program, contact Lisa Jarvis, manager of community and workplace partnerships. For more information about this, visit the Reception House Waterloo Region online.

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