Every year, university campuses across the country fill with the hum and excitement of students looking for personally and intellectually transformative experiences. These students represent an unrivalled wealth of social and intellectual capital. Many of them dream of changing the world when they are older, but some universities are encouraging their students to tap into this energy as part of their education.
Key among these institutions is Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. The Federation had the privilege to speak to a leader in community engagement at SFU, Shauna Sylvester, Professor of Professional Practice, Director of the SFU Centre for Dialogue, and Executive Director of SFU Public Square.
Shauna has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and comes from a family of academics, but she chose to go down a professional, non-academic path. Today, she brings her rich experience in social and environmental work in Canada and the world back to SFU with the effect of making it one of the most socially and environmentally engaged universities in the country. SFU’s decision to appoint Shauna as Professor of Professional Practice speaks to the university's recognition of the value of professional experience alongside academic research.
Through initiatives like Semester in Dialogue, a program of the Centre for Dialogue, SFU provides innovative civic engagement opportunities for students that focus on specific themes like renewable energy and food security. In addition to endowing students with hands-on, experiential learning that will be of tremendous value in their post-university careers, this program brings the social and intellectual capital of universities to the communities themselves; in Shauna’s own words, “out of the ivory tower to the public square.”
Outside the gates of the university, it may seem that the diverse fields of postsecondary education are insular and unengaged with their social surroundings. However, when social science students serve at local schools or engage with issues of sustainability in their community, as those at SFU do, the wider public is directly impacted by the strong sense of innovation and engagement that characterizes postsecondary education today. This moves us beyond antiquated perceptions of the ivory tower, towards a truer reflection of today’s socially engaged university.