Vic International: Increasing Access to Experiential Learning
By Liz Taylor Surani
“It is incredibly motivating for students to see how their academic learning can be expanded and transformed by an international research or work placement,” says Victoria College Principal Angela Esterhammer Vic 8T3.
More Vic students will have the chance to gain a new perspective through experiential learning opportunities made possible by a $500,000 grant from Universities Canada and its Global Skills Opportunity program.
This fall, the Office of the Principal launched Vic International: Work-Integrated Learning Abroad to help support students interested in multinational learning experiences. The grant is part of a government-funded initiative that aims to increase student access to international learning opportunities, with a focus on facilitating increased access for students from underrepresented groups.
“We are really excited to receive this generous grant, and eager to get the word out to Vic students,” says Esterhammer. “This is a fantastic opportunity for students to acquire global skills and competencies, and take their university experience to a new level.”
Broadening opportunities for more experiential learning and international study is a priority for Victoria University’s president, William Robins, and is included in Vic’s five-year Strategic Framework, approved by the Board of Regents in June 2021. “Increasing student access to international study and providing financial support for this kind of activity will ensure that more students can engage in unique and life-changing experiences,” says Robins, who over many years taught in U of T’s summer-abroad program in Siena, Italy. “Currently, the Vic International program is funded through to 2025 and will support at least 70 students for international work-integrated learning opportunities. Most of those places are designated for Indigenous students, students with disabilities and students from low-income backgrounds.
Victoria’s registrar, Yvette Ali, believes that creating a more inclusive learn-abroad program for students is a positive step. “Learn-abroad experiences have traditionally favoured students with greater financial resources at their disposal,” says Ali. “One of the most significant barriers to learning abroad is financial due to additional travel and living expenses as well as a loss of income if experiential learning takes places over the summer months.”
This new, four-year grant will provide funding for students to travel and learn internationally within the context of credit courses. Eligible courses may involve a wide range of experiential learning, such as internships or other work-integrated placements, research experiences, and fieldwork. All Victoria College students are eligible for this funding for international experiential learning in any field or program of study.
In addition, notes Esterhammer, ongoing opportunities within some Vic academic programs are also still available. These include a teaching internship in Beijing Foreign Languages School and at Branksome Hall Asia in South Korea, both offered through the Education and Society Program. Additionally, a planned expansion is underway to open up international placement opportunities in Israel through an existing partnership with Hebrew University in the Material Culture and Semiotics Program, and there are more program-related opportunities currently under development. Members from the Office of the Principal are working closely with the Office of the Registrar and Academic Advising to notify Victoria College students about these exciting opportunities, in preparation for the restart of international programming this summer.
The program is also an important step towards achieving Canada’s trade diversification goals and strengthening international networks. The Global Skills Opportunity Program is a central component of Canada’s International Education Strategy. It is funded by Employment and Social Development Canada, and jointly administered by Universities Canada, and Colleges and Institutes Canada.
“This grant is both unique and exciting because it’s not only focused on academic knowledge,” says Ali. “Experiences like these offer students tangible skills that they can apply to their next steps after graduation. Pursuing this grant opportunity on behalf of Vic students was really a response to how our graduates are expected to have a global perspective. A learning-abroad opportunity provides them with a competitive edge for post-graduate coursework or working after graduation—an opportunity to which all students should have access.”
Esterhammer agrees: “The range of skills summed up in the term ‘global competency’ is becoming increasingly important for students contemplating a wide variety of careers. These skills include cross-cultural understanding, communication, problem solving, flexibility and adaptability.”
In winter 2020, then third-year student David de Paiva travelled to Switzerland and enrolled at the University of Geneva for a semester. “Having grown up in the greater Toronto area, it was a great opportunity for me to travel and learn in a new environment. I decided to go to Geneva so I could learn about politics in one of the great historical cities for world politics. Living there also provided me with an opportunity to practise my French.”
“I think it probably would have been a life-changing experience,” he says, “but my stay was interrupted after three weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic. I had to flee Europe a couple of days after I received my Swiss residency permit, which was an unexpectedly exciting and scary experience! Still, the subsequent three months of online school from Toronto felt new.”
In spite of not living abroad for the whole semester, de Paiva still feels that he benefitted in unique ways. “In the short time I was abroad, I had learned how to make proper mulled wine from someone from Boston, played Dungeons and Dragons for the first time with someone else from Pennsylvania, and went swimming in Lake Geneva in February with someone from Malaysia. Even after my return, I worked on a project on D.H. Lawrence across a 16-hour time difference with an Australian student. These were all really exciting experiences, and what they say about meeting people from across the globe when you study abroad is true!”
He also had the opportunity to enroll in online courses through the University of Geneva and the experience was both challenging and rewarding—something he says he will never forget. “I had a class taught by an English professor from England who was so passionate about literature. He was also very kind and helpful as I adapted to both long-distance and online learning; his patience and understanding as I worked through an unfamiliar subject area has stuck with me.”
De Pavia graduated from Vic this past June with a bachelor of arts degree in political science, urban studies and Russian literature. He looks forward to travelling again when he can do so safely.
Fellow graduate Jane Yearwood Vic 2T1 knew since she was in high school that she wanted travel to be part of her undergraduate experience—learning abroad options was one of the reasons she chose U of T. What she did not anticipate is that her travels would make such an indelible impression that she would change academic majors upon her return to Canada. It’s not a decision she took lightly, as it did add a fifth year to her studies, but she’s certain she did the right thing.
“I was so grateful I had the opportunity to travel pre-pandemic,” says Yearwood. “I was fortunate to travel to Beijing through the Education and Society Program to complete my teaching placement abroad. Prior to joining the program in Beijing in the winter of 2019, Yearwood went to South Korea for a month to study modern Korean literature—a learning experience she organized herself. She used the Korean experience to gain a cultural credit, and in Beijing engaged in courses ranging from Chinese language and comparative literature to Chinese painting and martial arts. She describes her learning experiences abroad as “magical:” “Once I was further away from home, I started noticing in a more visceral sense how my worldview had been shaped by my own lived reality. It was important for me to see how my worldview differed from others.”
It was during her stay in Beijing—and subsequent trips in the region—that Yearwood started to see the world around her in a new way. “When I was in Asia, I was so intrigued by all of the different cities I went to, especially the buildings and architecture. I became very interested in the development of these cities, and in urban planning more generally. My travels encouraged me to ask questions about transportation, housing, health, food access, social inequities and more.”
Having taken some geography courses at U of T prior to her departure, Yearwood knew that she could study these subjects more seriously upon her return. And yet, when she did get home, she was only one semester away from graduating. “I was so close to completing my degree requirements; however, I ended up switching majors, took a fifth year at Vic and enrolled in a series of geography courses instead,” she says. It was a huge shift academically, but my experiences abroad really showed me a different path from which I could not easily turn away. It really cemented my love for my minor in education and society and opened my eyes toward geography. For me, the experience was transformational.”
This past June, Yearwood graduated with a major in human geography and a triple minor in French, English, and education and society. She is in the midst of applying to a master’s program in geography at U of T.
Both Yearwood and de Paiva met people from all over the world and became classmates with students from different universities. Working and learning abroad enabled them to develop new interests, new ideas and ways of looking at the world, and to gain deeper self-knowledge. In short, they returned to Canada as global citizens with a broadened sense of the importance of discovery, what is possible, and where they might have an impact.
Fieldwork and internships are crucial to learning and research. Whether choosing to study overseas, conduct research abroad or pursue professional internships, students should not be limited in furthering their academic goals by financial barriers. Students speak of their learning abroad experiences as life changing; providing support for additional experiential opportunities and access to such programs for all Victoria College students continues to be a top priority for the University.