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Gillian Kemp (Senior Experiential Learning Facilitator at MacEwan University) has been a leader in work-integrated experiential learning for over a decade. Team Riipen recently spoke with Gillian, who shared insights from her journey—growing and delivering one of the largest post-secondary experiential learning programs in Canada.

“My role started at Brock University in the mid-2000s, when I was leading a community initiative called SkillShare, which was focused on enhancing business skills in the not-for-profit sector. The success of that initiative led me to a new position at Brock, first as Director of Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Initiatives, and then as Senior Experiential Education Coordinator for the Business School.”

While at Brock, Gillian grew the experiential learning program from 9 partners and 12 students, to over 100 partners and 2000 students per year.

“In under a decade, we grew experiential learning opportunities 100X for students, and 10x for community partners. Every single student who graduated from the business school had a “real world” experiential education opportunity.”

Gillian started her new position at MacEwan University in 2018, in an institution-wide role with a mandate to grow experiential learning across the entire student body (19,000 undergraduate students). MacEwan is a teaching-focused university that has roots as a community college, with a strong work-integrated learning culture and many programs that require work placements. As part of their strategic planning process, the senior administration identified a need for deepening and expanding their commitment, particularly through enhanced academic course-based and curriculum-integrated experiential learning.

“We are the downtown university in Edmonton. The community moves through our campus. There is a north-south divide (we sit on the line between the haves and the have-nots), so we want to ensure that our presence is a positive impact on community, and idea of being an engaged campus is really strong. Currently 4,000 students benefit from placements every year, but we want all of our 19,000 students to benefit from experiential learning.”

Gillian is now working with MacEwan to expand and support a wide range of experiential learning, including community-engaged learning, which she feels is particularly appropriate to disciplines, such as those in the Faculty of Arts and Science, that tend to be focused more on research than professional practice. In her view: “you can do robust research in a community-engaged and community-informed way that meets pedagogical requirements and simultaneously serves the needs of community partners.”

Gillian offered some key insights into the experiential learning landscape:

The economy is driving the change: “The economy is driving the need for more and more experiential learning because it is so much more effective at connecting academic content to transferable skills and competencies for students.” 

Better serving students: “Experiential learning helps students understand their skills, knowledge, capacity, and motivation. For example, a student studying sociology might have, in the past, thought they were constrained to looking for jobs as a sociologist; but when given the opportunity to do experiential learning, for example researching best practice around reducing social isolation in newcomer families, they realize that there are many jobs that match their skills – such as social worker, counsellor, or psychologist. So they develop career clarity and a sense of purpose which helps them after they graduate.”

Better serving Community Partners: “Experiential Learning builds capacity in our community organisations and businesses. That, in turn, makes for a better economy and community fabric. Community partners love exposure to new ideas! After over 12 years of reading feedback from partners, the #1 benefit they articulate is that they love the “out of the box” thinking that students bring, challenging assumptions and revitalizing their organizations.”

When asked for an anecdote that sums up her journey, Gillian tells this story: 

“When I started at Brock over a decade ago, one instructor told me: “experiential learning is not what we do at universities – that’s the kind of thing that colleges do.” As the benefits and popularity of experiential learning proved themselves, the instructor actually joined my team 10 years later as one of its most enthusiastic members.”

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