Assessment, Indigenous Learning, School Community

The University of Winnipeg and Community Learning

It is hard to believe that my tenure as the President of the University of Winnipeg began six years ago already. When I think back to that beginning, I remember that while the University of Winnipeg had always held its own as an excellent provider of post-secondary education, at the time it found itself in a dire financial situation and had lost its direction. In search of a remedy, we set about conducting an intensive consultation both within and outside of our university community with a view to changing the strategic application of our mission to include our role and responsibility in the community. That consultation revealed that in the downtown neighbourhood of inner city Winnipeg, where we are located, many residents face barriers to higher education. It turned out that for many in our community the university was an unknown, strange, and unwelcoming territory. It became clear to us that there was a disconnect between the changing realities of the communities around us, and our vision for a sustainable, prosperous city.

Aboriginal peoples strongly believe in the importance of education and its transformational effect as one of the biggest drivers for empowerment.

Take, for example, the influx of New Canadians and Aboriginal peoples into urban centres. Winnipeg itself is home to the largest urban population of Aboriginal peoples in Canada, nearly 70,000. It is a distinctly young population, and one whose growth will only be surpassed by those who immigrate to Winnipeg from outside of Canada. These shifting demographics, which are not unique to Winnipeg, represent changes of great importance across the country as a growing pool of learners emerges from the rich and diverse cultural backgrounds in our cities. They also put enormous pressure on our institutions to ensure that the transitions are successful ones.

So far the pressures are not being met. As the latest census figures show, the educational attainment of Aboriginal peoples is far lower than that of the non-Aboriginal population. This achievement gap is undermining the future of the economic and social health of the broader community. If Aboriginal Canadians were able to achieve the same level of education by 2017 that non-Aboriginal Canadians achieved in 2001, Canada’s gross domestic product would increase by more than $70 billion over those 16 years. If the education gap were closed completely and educational parity achieved by 2017, Canada’s gross domestic product would increase by more than $160 billion.[1]

At the same time, there is a great appetite for education among the Aboriginal community. In our many conversations with residents of our inner city neighbourhood, one of the most important findings has been that Aboriginal peoples strongly believe in the importance of education and its transformational effect as one of the biggest drivers for empowerment, for securing a job, and for financial stability. Yet they report financial obstacles, curricula that are not reflective of their history and culture, and a lack of moral and emotional support for those pursuing a post-secondary degree.

These obstacles are undermining both the future of the University – by reducing the pool of potential students – and the future of the economic and social health of the broader community – by denying the potential of a highly talented young workforce to replace those who are retiring. To quote Phil Fontaine, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, speaking about the education of Aboriginal peoples: “We see education as a way out of poverty for our people … education is our future. Education is about making it possible for us to be contributors to Canada’s future.”

Ultimately, what we saw in Winnipeg was an opportunity to fill a role within the community that was obviously lacking. And so we developed a strategy and a plan – for the future of the University, but also for the city. It will be as the ancient Greeks prophesied, first we shape our cities, then they shape us. We realized that the fundamentals of how we live – our prosperity, our security, our sustainability – will be largely determined by what we do in our cities. With our strategic location in Winnipeg’s downtown, we wanted to position ourselves as an anchor for renewal. We were already a well-established educational institution with a good reputation. We were already producing the future leaders and business people who would shape the future of our city. We were well positioned to make a difference. We were supported by the understanding that education can be a catalyst for positive change, but it was going to take some strong leadership. 

We started with a series of internal changes of people and practices and enlisted the help of Aboriginal organizations and other community groups to show the way. We are teaching institutions, but we recognized that we had a lot of learning to do as well.  As part of building this vision, we involved ourselves in a major strategic effort to re-define ourselves and to enhance our role in the rapidly transforming local and global community. We called it our Community Learning Strategy.

What is Community Learning? It describes the active integration of the university into the social, cultural, and educational life of the community. It recognizes the responsibility of the university to function in an accessible manner and to open itself up to the wide diversity of knowledge and experience represented within society.

Broadly speaking, community learning, as applied at The University of Winnipeg, consists of:

1)    the provision of innovative learning opportunities for various populations currently under-represented in the University population;

2)    the use of the resources of the University to analyze and address social, economic, cultural, and environmental issues in partnership with community organizations and other groups;

3)    the cultivation of dynamic and reciprocal relationships between the campus and the surrounding community in which University resources are used to facilitate community-university learning development in ways that are sustainable in social, economic, cultural, and environmental terms; and

4)    the understanding that these initiatives serve as learning opportunities for our students and others from within a broad range of local and global communities.

What does Community Learning actually look like? We have developed a number of programs targeting various members of the community around us. Our goal is to bring them into the University fold, to make them feel welcome on our campus, and to get them excited about learning. We have realized that for some, the benefits of a university education may not be obvious. But through appropriate intervention and the active engagement of students, starting as early as possible, we can show them that the possibilities are limitless.

Funding for our community learning programs is not part of the University of Winnipeg’s present public funding structure. The programs we’ve initiated and the successes we’ve achieved are all dependent on private sources of funding.

ILC programming serves as a “tap on the shoulder” for these children and youth so that they can begin at an early age to see that a post-secondary education is indeed possible for them.

The Innovative Learning Centre

In recognition of the importance of early intervention, we have created an Innovative Learning Centre (ILC) that brings a host of young students from across the city into the University to participate in a series of unique learning initiatives designed to close the graduation gap for inner city, Aboriginal, and new Canadian youth. 

Since it was established three years ago, the ILC has served over 5,000 students aged 7-21 through programming both during and after school hours, on weekends, and in the summer months. The ILC develops strong partnerships with school superintendents, principals, and teachers from inner city schools and with the families of the children and youth involved. Using the resources and the infrastructure of the University, ILC programming serves as what Coordinator Kevin Chief calls a “tap on the shoulder” for these children and youth so that they can begin at an early age to see that a post-secondary education is indeed possible for them.

During the regular school year, students from local elementary and high schools are engaged in our Eco-Kids and Enviro Techs programs, which provide on-campus learning experiences in science, sustainability, human rights, and community engagement.

Over the past three years, 2,400 children have participated in the ILC’s Eco-U Summer Camp initiative – one of the largest day camps in the city for inner city and Aboriginal youth in Winnipeg. Campers are engaged in a full slate of activities from traditional dance, to tending a community garden, to participating in smudging ceremonies and traditional Aboriginal storytelling, to environmental science and sustainability experiments. Eco-U Summer Camp employees, drawn from high schools and the University, are often participants in other ILC programming.

Model School

These direct community learning activities have been augmented with what is perhaps our most innovative and complex program: a Model School set up in cooperation with the University’s Collegiate High School and based on successful models developed in Chicago and several other jurisdictions in the United States. The idea was to re-engage students of potentially high achievement who were at high risk of dropping out of the regular school system or who were running into behavioural problems, addictions, or criminal activity. The Model School offers an individualized style of education that helps students achieve success by drawing on their individual strengths, talents, and interests while integrating them into the mainstream programs of the University of Winnipeg’s well-regarded Collegiate High School. Its location on campus has been extremely beneficial to the students as they have been able to utilize all of the resources and materials of the Collegiate while developing a sense of identity as members of the University of Winnipeg community.

In April, we celebrated the first three graduates of the Model School. It was a powerful experience to see these students cross the stage to receive their diplomas. All three students have now returned to the Model School to upgrade their courses and prepare for eventual studies at the post-secondary level. Students and their families have said that this University-based programming has removed a stigma that they have felt with some other programs targeted at low-income students; they feel that the University is a place for them and not an exclusive, closed institution situated within their neighbourhood.

Opportunity Fund

To deal with the fundamental issue of financial need, we created an Opportunity Fund to enable us to establish tuition credit accounts for participating students in which the University will register credit for specific academic or community achievement. Children earning these credits can apply them toward a post-secondary education when they graduate from high school. They are an example of earning by learning and appear to be a positive way of attracting family support.

A secondary component of the Opportunity Fund resulted from recognition that the conventional way of awarding bursaries was creating a number of handicaps for low-income students, such as the initial cost of registration at the University, and the waiting period while financial need and income capacity were assessed. As a result, we incorporated a fast-track bursary option into the Opportunity Fund that offers students financial support through a relatively quick and simple process when they are endorsed by a community group. The values of these bursaries vary for each student depending on need, but can be given to a maximum of $5,000. There was initial concern that this approach would not yield a high retention rate. However, during the two years in which we have given fast track assistance to over 300 students in need, the retention rate has been equal to the average for the student body as a whole.

Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre

To supplement these initiatives the University maintains, on an ongoing basis, the Wii Chiiwaakanak Learning Centre, a drop-in center for inner city residents managed by our Aboriginal Student Services Centre. Wii Chiiwaakanak offers free computer access along with complementary academic programs, traditional language programs, Elders’ circles, and a homework club located directly across the street from the University’s main campus. The centre plays an important role in redressing what is sometimes called the “digital divide”, a gap in effective access to digital and information technology. The demand for such access is dramatically demonstrated by the fact that an average of 2,500 students per month use the computers and services of the centre.

The Global Welcome Centre

We have established a mirror program to help meet the needs of newcomers. The Global Welcome Centre, (GWC) which is directly supported by the Manitoba Department of Labour and Immigration, assists new Canadians in preparation for learning activities and other transitional issues. The GWC offers a university preparation course, mentorship and tutoring programs, computer skills classes, and an Immigrant Access Advisor to provide academic advice and support tailored to the needs of newcomers and refugees.

These efforts at community learning have convinced us that impacts on both the community and the University are positive and that these initiatives have added a new dimension to our role as an urban University with a mandate to tackle the unique challenges of our times.

It has also taught us a great deal about how to make more effective use of the resources and infrastructures of the University, and about how to form community partnerships. It has suggested that partnerships involving a combination of various techniques of intervention can make a difference in outlook and achievement.

Engaging with the Community

We continue to find new and innovative ways to draw the residents of the inner city onto our campus. In 2009, we completed a new student residence with a mixed-use housing model made up of both University of Winnipeg students and other neighbourhood residents seeking additional education. The same year we were able to open a new day care centre, with spaces for the children of both University and community families. For the 2009/2010 school year, the University moved away from contracting out to traditional food service providers and established its own. Under the name “Diversity”, the new food service provider is committed to hiring and training local inner city residents who will ultimately be eligible to own 25 percent of the stock in the company. Its mandate is to supply locally grown, diverse menus that fit the contemporary needs of our multi-ethnic campus.

As the city’s only downtown university, we have accepted the responsibility for addressing the important issues that are affecting the communities that make up the City of Winnipeg. We have worked on the basis of partnership, and we have achieved some success. But there is still much work to do. We must promote community learning as the best way to engage people from all walks of life, ages, and interests and use our combination of resources to build seamless, connected learning systems that ensure everyone has a chance. In doing so, we will enlist the schools, the community organizations, and the universities and colleges in a comprehensive learning partnership in our downtown neighbourhood, both to build skills and enhance talents and to build bridges and integrate our efforts so that we become a community of learners – learning about each other and learning what our duties and responsibilities are as citizens. Does it cost money? Yes, but far less than we have to pay if the fragmentation of lives and communities continues to grow.

It is encouraging to witness the progress we’ve made since those first consultations six years ago. Out of it all, we’ve learned some very significant lessons. We’ve demonstrated that the University has the capacity to listen to and share with the community and to move beyond the conventional orbit of University programming. Even as an institution dependent on public funding, we have succeeded in setting new paradigms for public policy as well as starting conversations around what we can achieve in the revitalization of Winnipeg’s downtown. We’ve endeavoured to dream big – responding to and encouraging a thirst for innovation and leadership in downtown renewal. We’ve learned that supporters will come forward with financial contributions. Finally, aiming at the very heart of the matter, we have learned that community learning can make a real difference. Just ask the most recent graduates from our Model School.

EN BREF – D’après une consultation intensive entreprise par l’Université de Winnipeg, de nombreux résidents – en particulier les nouveaux Canadiens et les Autochtones vivant dans les centres-villes – font face à des entraves aux études supérieures et, pour beaucoup d’entre eux, l’université est un territoire inconnu et inhospitalier. Winnipeg comprend la plus nombreuse population urbaine d’Autochtones au Canada – soit près de 70 000 membres d’une population distinctement jeune et croissante. Cette démographie changeante représente un groupe grandissant d’apprenants, exerçant d’énormes pressions sur nos institutions chargées d’assurer le succès de leurs transitions. Consciente de sa responsabilité de fonctionner de manière accessible et de s’ouvrir au large éventail de savoirs et d’expériences au sein de la société, l’Université de Winnipeg a lancé plusieurs initiatives pour s’engager dans la collectivité environnante : un centre d’apprentissage innovateur, une école pilote, un fonds de possibilités et le Centre d’apprentissage Wii Chiiwaakanak offrant de l’aide scolaire aux résidents du centre-ville.

[1] Andrew Sharp, Jean-Francois Arsenault and Simon Lapointe, “The Potential Contribution of Aboriginal Canadians to Labour Force, Employment, Productivity and Output Growth in Canada, 2001-2017,” Centre for the Study of Living Standards, CSLS Research Report No. 2007-04, 6.

Meet the Expert(s)

Lloyd Axworthy

Dr. Lloyd Axworthy is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.

Read More

1/5 Free Articles Left

LOGIN Join The Network