Bridging the gap between students and their community

CAMBRIDGE, Ont. – Getting university and college students out of the so-called bubble that is their campus is easier said than done.

Between the common stereotype of disruptive students who use the community in
which their university is located as nothing more than a party destination for eight months of the year and permanent residents who view these young people as nothing more than a nuisance, getting co-operation between the two can be a slow and painful process.

But what happens when students and community members work together, rather
than treating each other like natural enemies? Is it even possible?

Those are exactly the questions the Town and Gown Association of Ontario (an
organization that aims at improving relations between post-secondary institutions and the communities that house them) was looking to answer at their symposium in Cambridge, Sunday through Tuesday. The symposium brought speakers from universities and communities from across Canada to the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, who believed that not only is it possible for permanent residents and students to work together, but when they do, great things will happen.

“Universities can galvanize regional thinking,” said Jeff Dixon, assistant director
of the Monieson Centre at Queen’s University. “Not just in the city the school’s in, but the entire region…. The students just need to feel like they’re a part of the community.”

On Tuesday, Dixon discussed the Monieson Centre’s initiative that set Queen’s
students up with businesses in 15 different rural municipalities in Eastern Ontario, in which they not only got real world experience, but helped solve problems specific to that community. Students from different faculties work in a volunteer capacity, providing everything from field research to business expertise, building partnerships between the students and the community.

Dixon mentioned that Queen’s has gotten a particularly bad reputation when it
comes to student-external community relations, with its notorious Homecoming
celebrations, however, he maintained that even this divide can be bridged.

“I think we’ve shown that great, positive things can happen when universities and communities come together,” he said.

While the Queen’s initiative got students involved with local businesses, at
Mount Allison University, students are actually getting involved in the governing of the city. Michael Fox, a Mount Allison (located in Sackville, N.B.) professor, also presented at the symposium and discussed a course he started, known as the Community Classroom

Project, which enables students to earn credits while working with the Mayor, Town
Council and the community as a whole.

“[University administration] always says ‘it can’t be a real course, the students
like it,’” said Fox of the course. “But we didn’t need admin, the student government was there and they know way more about what’s going on in the community.”

The students who take Fox’s course have frequent communication with the
Mayor of Sackville’s office and do everything from spearheading projects to help
integrate students into the community to housing studies to making formal reports at Town Council meetings.

“We have 9000 small communities in this country, but when you put a university in that community, things begin to happen,” said Fox. “[The Students] can do some great things and get a lot of credit for being leaders.”

The symposium concluded with a discussion on rental housing bylaws, featuring
Jerry Conlin, director of municipal law enforcement in Oshawa, Jim Barry, director of bylaw enforcement and property standards in Waterloo and Joe Xamin, manager of operational strategies, parking and bylaw services in Hamilton.

While all three faced very different situations in their attempts to regulate rental
housing through bylaws, all three maintained that getting input from students at the local colleges and universities were paramount to the process.