Bridge on the Waterloo campus with trees on either side.

Safe, inclusive and inspiring, Renison’s Social Development Studies program could just help you change the world

Sometimes it takes a few false starts before finding a program that feels like home. Just ask Aurra, a recent graduate of the Social Development Studies (SDS) program offered through Renison University College, a mini campus within the University of Waterloo.

Before she stumbled onto SDS through a thought-provoking political ideologies course, Aurra had already changed majors three times. But whether she was taking genetics at another university or business classes at Waterloo, she felt a disconnect with the course material and other students. What she was learning just seemed too specific and detached from other disciplines. Aurra wanted a holistic, interdisciplinary program that connected life’s dots.

She says she remembers feeling different than her classmates and professors – like a hexagonal peg in a round hole. Aurra wanted to change the world, but no one else seemed to be speaking her exact language.

“Before I found SDS I felt very isolated,” she says now. “I would say – and this is not to be dramatic – I came across SDS and it really changed my life.”

Not every student finds SDS at Renison in such a roundabout way. In fact, it’s easy to jump in from day one. SDS is a direct-entry program through Renison so students can apply to the program through the Ontario Universities Application Centre (OUAC). It’s also offered as a major through the Honours Arts and Honours Arts and Business programs.

Aurra, who is now doing her Masters in social justice and community engagement at another local university, says she knew she had found something special the moment she entered the SDS community. Struggling with her mental health at the time, she says she felt supported and understood.

“They never invalidated my experiences,” she says of her SDS professors. “All of my questions were answered promptly, and any direction I wanted to take my degree, I was offered those avenues and opportunities. The professors for SDS are warm and work really diligently to build an inclusive environment.”

It helped that Renison’s campus offers a tight, intimate community just across the pedestrian bridge from the main Waterloo campus – while students earn an impressive University of Waterloo degree.

The program, which offers courses in human and social development, including psychology, sociology, and social work, is also flexible. Even before the pandemic closed in-person classes, Aurra was able to take many courses online and completed her degree while she worked full-time. Some of her friends studied while living in other countries. Their international perspectives were illuminating and invaluable.

Ultimately, SDS gave her something she felt she’d been missing in her prior years as a university student: a feeling of belonging.

“The Social Development Studies degree allows you to add on specializations, and there’s no max,” adds Aurra, who focused on equity, diversity and education. “It allowed me to really focus on what I’m passionate about.”

But ultimately, SDS gave her something she felt she’d been missing in her prior years as a university student: a feeling of belonging. Aurra says she grew up in an exceptionally tight, collectivist Muslim family and community. A culture in which the words “I” and “we” are used interchangeably. Her newfound independence on campus early in her years as a university student were not easy. She struggled.

But SDS at Renison was different. It just felt right.

“When I found Renison, it was this open, supportive place where I had that sense of people having my back,” she says, explaining that the professors saw her as a person, not a number. And when she attended campus events, she realized, “all these people were genuinely happy for me to be a part of it. That empowered me to feel like I belonged to something that was greater than just myself.”

Those experiences have given Aurra, the first person in her family to earn a university degree, the confidence to think bigger and set long-term goals. She now has her sights set on eventually earning her PhD, committing to doing social justice work with a critical lens and community-based research – and perhaps even returning to Renison to teach. An SDS apprenticeship actually paved the way for building this career. Today, she also works as a paid research assistant examining restorative justice and antiracism in schools.

So what advice would she give students considering the SDS program in first-year university and beyond? She lists off three helpful tips.

“Take care of yourself. Surround yourself with people who are like-minded and on the same mission, and try it all,” she says. “SDS really set me up to see what’s possible.”

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