If you are thinking of implementing a similar program with your students, here are some learnings and considerations that are grounded in our facilitators' own experiences.
Allow for registrations beyond your registration limit in anticipation of last-minute cancellations and extenuating circumstances. One of the challenges with offering a voluntary participation program is that despite students' best intentions to follow through week after week, there are a number of competing demands on their time, some of which take students by surprise. Allow for a higher registration capacity to help buffer the drop in numbers that will inevitably occur between registration and course end.
Limit course work outside of workshop sessions. From in-class interactions with students and the feedback they provided both verbally and in weekly evaluations, it was evident that the learning goals of the course were achieved within each workshop. Though students were assigned weekly homework readings, the majority of students did not have time to complete these. With that in mind, an alternate but equally effective approach would be to either frame the readings as optional or assign students to divide up the readings and give a brief one-time presentation to their peers to convey the key points, while reducing the amount of ongoing take-home work for each student. Ideally, providing students with little to no homework would help to ease the burden on those who feel stretched by their curricular workload.
Offer the modules early in the term when students have a lighter workload and schedule the workshops on a weekly basis, leaving a slightly longer time period (e.g., two weeks) before the last session to allow for completion of the experiential component. An aspect of the pilot program which posed a challenge was the fact that the modules were delivered over a 9 week period, extending through mid-term exams and reading week requiring a long-term commitment on the part of students. The program also began to conflict with end-of-semester course assignment deadlines. Meeting on a weekly (vs. bi-weekly) basis would also have provided students with a greater sense of consistency and momentum.
Integrate reflection into every activity. Two of the key capacities this program aims to develop are critical thinking and reflection, both of which develop gradually with a great deal of practice. It was helpful to keep the workshops activity-based and to embed critical thinking and reflection into every activity. For example, the first workshop began by guiding students through an exploration and articulation of their values.Students were then asked to choose a social issue they felt passionate about and reflect on how their values influenced the way in which they would engage with that particular issue. Students learned how to identify an organization's mission, vision and values and reflected on the importance of working within an organization whose values aligned with their own.
Highlight the value of this certificate in relation to career development. Though this course was designed to prepare students for entry-level non-profit sector volunteerism, the learnings and tools could effectively be applied across sectors or contexts. The course facilitators reinforced these connections constantly. For example, as students described how their values drove them toward action on a particular social issue, the facilitators encouraged them to envision themselves delivering the same impassioned statement in a job interview. Further, the facilitators encouraged students to use Laurier's competency framework as a tool for highlighting their accomplishments and discovering gaps in which they could focus on growth.
Commence the community volunteering pathway as soon as possible (either week 1 of the course or prior). Securing a volunteer placement and meeting the training/onboarding requirements (e.g., police checks) of various organizations can take several weeks. Further, many employers will not consider taking on a volunteer for less than 4-6 months. Give students the opportunity to volunteer over their entire term by setting up their placements early.
Offer students flexibility in meeting the volunteer requirements. Rather than setting out a start and end date within which students must complete the minimum volunteer commitment for the course, allow students to augment their independent volunteer experience with the learnings of the course. Permit students to complete their volunteer commitments at their own pace and to 'check in' with their facilitator when they have met the course requirement of 15-20 hours of completed volunteer work.
Communicate with other departments at your institution that provide curricular experiential learning (e.g., Community Service-Learning and Co-operative Education). This ensures a unified and consistent approach to contacting community partners. Further, these departments may be able to provide insight into opportunities appropriate for your program. Through communication with Laurier's Community Service-Learning (CSL) department, we learned of a number of short-term community opportunities that remained unfilled by the CSL program. These opportunities served to be an ideal fit for our program's volunteer pathway, which was a win-win situation for us as facilitators and our colleagues in CSL.
Offer a 'Case Study' alternative for students who cannot fit volunteerism into their schedules. A small number of students could not commit to community volunteerism due to transportation or scheduling constraints, but still wished to take the course and contribute their time and skills to the off-campus community. We provided these students with a 'Case Study', a real problem-solving scenario related to a community organization which allowed them to work remotely in roles related to research, strategy, marketing and communications. In spite of their many benefits, case studies have the potential to put strain on the community organizations involved, due to the time it takes to develop the assignments, provide context about the organization, review the completed work and provide feedback to students.Moreover, there are no guarantees about the quality of student deliverables. As such, we recommend that the institution manage expectations with employers, take the lead in preparing and writing up case study guidelines and act as an intermediary between students and organizations. The vast majority of students in our course - when given the choice between working on a case study and volunteering - opted to volunteer.
Reach out to employers before sending students their way. Employers appreciated the calls they received from our facilitators, taking the time to explain to them what the course is about, to clarify expectations on students and employers and to inquire about the organization's capacity to participate. Even those employers who respectfully declined to take on student volunteers were grateful for the ability to communicate with just one point of contact, rather than answering a number of student inquiries. Contacting employers in advance also set students up for a positive initial contact experience and gave us as facilitators an opportunity to coach students in professional introductions.