Giving back through teaching, advocacy, mental health support and collaboration

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

By Kaitlin O'Brien

Graduate school flies by in a flurry of seminars, dissertation chapters and conference papers. While it may feel fast-paced, that time frame is crucial for students to build up their curriculum vitae and gain skills and experience suitable for future academic or industry roles.

The competitive edge takes on many forms, but what sets these four graduate students in the Faculty of Arts apart are their contributions to various communities that strengthen both their academics and identity as global citizens. 

Speaking out on Indigenous injustice, and social activism through engagement

Lucy VorobejAs an activist and historian vocal on the Indigenous rights front, History PhD student Lucy Vorobej works to raise consciousness of how historical negative stereotypes and injustices were created and how they can be redressed within Canadian society. Lucy co-leads a website centred on missing and murdered Indigenous women. Her goal? Diving into the history from the 1970s to the 2000s and assessing how missing and murdered Indigenous women’s narratives were misreported and misstated to understand how different stereotypes of Indigenous women formed.

“As Canadians we are responsible for learning about our own history and accounting for it. We can’t talk about an age of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples without learning and action,” says Vorobej. “Dismantling these stereotypes helps because in their present form they construct inaccurate narratives that mistakenly serve to condone colonization.” 

Joined by peers aged 18 and younger, Lucy facilitates the annual Shaking the Movers initiative, where participants discuss an article from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and produce a report that is sent to the movers in society — namely parliamentarians and the leaders of NGOs. Lucy has been involved in this program for a number of years, participating in discussions on refugee and Indigenous children, children in the child welfare system, discrimination, and the right to education, to name a few.

Improving science accessibility

Sarah McCrackinFourth year Cognitive Neuroscience PhD student Sarah McCrackin seeks out teaching opportunities that make science more accessible to the public. Sarah breaks down the barriers to learning by interactively teaching concepts to her students. She participates in community science outreach, including the Let’s Talk Science initiative at the University, which allow her to run workshops on science topics at elementary schools and local libraries. Sarah contributes to the web-based component of the program, CurioCity, where she writes articles for high school students to help them easily understand university-level topics. In one paper, she described her research on the use of eye gaze in social interactions, and how cues from another person’s eyes can help us infer what they’re thinking and feeling.

More than a number: connecting with students personally

Vanessa CorreiaVanessa Correia, a fourth year PhD student in Philosophy went beyond with her students on the last day of her Business Ethics class. Each student was gifted a note with a motivational quote, an image of her cat whom she mentioned in class for levity, tea and a personal business card, should a student want to reach out. Vanessa wanted to give her students the tools and support to be successful, even in the face of hardship. “I wanted to encourage my students to persevere personally and academically, and to think critically about the application of my course concepts to enhance their real-world understanding.”

While some students came up to thank her right away, it was later that Vanessa realized the full impact of her gesture. One of her students posted about the thoughtful message on Reddit, reflecting that the gesture was timely considering her own mental health challenges. To ensure the student was safe and equipped to deal with her personal hurdles, Vanessa reached out to offer further support.

Collaborative community work through idea sharing with the police

Damian SyczDamian Sycz, a PhD candidate in Sociology, works  to improve relations between young community members and local police.

He was a founding member of the Waterloo Crime Awareness team, which creates a welcoming space for students from Conestoga College, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo, to meet with the Waterloo Regional Police and share community concerns. During these meetings, they also discuss crime trends in the university and college districts. In one case, a door knocking program was established where students were encouraged to securely lock up their belongings before leaving for the winter holidays. “We tell the police about the issues students face, and they tell us about the issues they’re seeing, and then we work together to come up with ideas and initiatives to address these problems.”

Damian is also involved as a facilitator in the Cops and Youth Community Ownership program in Waterloo and Guelph, a 12-week program that brings together local high school students and the police to address concerns students have within their high school community, such as bullying, substance abuse, and impaired driving. Damian reflects, “This program really brings everyone together. When students interact with police in this capacity, it really humanizes the badge and removes barriers between the public and the police.”

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