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Community-University Partnership Leads to Win-Win Scenario

Contributed by: Rosemary Lysaght, PhD & Nicole Bobbette, MSc (OT), PhD (candidate)

There has been much debate about town-gown relations in the Kingston area, and the challenges of peacefully and productively integrating a large and seasonal population of Millennials into the broader Kingston community. What has been acknowledged is a genuine interest in fostering relations between both parties. Students can bring valuable assets to a community, including energy, passion and diverse skills; likewise, the Kingston community is a rich source of culture and expertise that can be shared with students.

This symbiotic potential is clearly on display in the ongoing engagement of community volunteers in interactive learning opportunities provided in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy. Kingston community members with disabilities form an enthusiastic team of volunteers who provide invaluable experience to our students, helping them build skills in interviewing and functional assessment, and “acting” as simulated patients in Objective Structured Clinical Exams. Volunteers also serve as active team members in engaged problem solving with occupational therapy and engineering students in the Building Better Together project, aimed at identifying solutions to challenges in daily living. All these experiences lay the foundation for student entry into fieldwork experiences in community health and rehabilitation facilities.

Recently we had the opportunity to serve as faculty instructors in the Occupational Therapy Program’s Lived Experience of Disability course. Offered in the first term of the program, this course begins a critical journey for students where they come to understand what it means to live with disability and impairment, and build empathy for those who are recipients of care. Student pairs are matched with a community mentor living with disability, and have the opportunity to spend time with them in their home, work and community environments. Feedback from students and mentors alike demonstrates this to be a powerful and transformational experience.

Importance of mentorship

As an instructor, there is this palpable excitement that spreads through the room when the students realize that they will be able to work with someone (not just a textbook) as soon as they enter the program. The community mentors bring their education ‘to life’ and this is often their first experience of this type of learning in a post-secondary setting. Students express a range of emotions, ranging from surprise to shock and anger in witnessing the challenges encountered by their mentors in encounters with the health and disability systems, and society in general. Most are deeply moved by how diligently and skillfully their mentors have negotiated some of these challenges, and how they live as active and engaged citizens, family members, and yes, teachers. In the Lived Experience course, it is acknowledged that hearing someone’s story is a privilege, and students are encouraged to explore the lives of others with respect and curiosity. It is one opportunity where they can ask a person with a disability probing questions that they could not ask a future client – like “Do you think of yourself as having a disability?” or “What is it like when you go out on a date with someone for the first time?”.

What mentors gain

We recently held a debriefing meeting for this year’s Lived Experience mentors, many of whom also serve as volunteers in other courses. They spoke of the many benefits of engaging in the mentor relationship. Most are motivated to participate because it provides them an opportunity to shape the thinking and awareness of the next generation of therapists. Others note the pure enjoyment of connecting in a meaningful way with students, who bring their own enthusiasm and ideas into the relationship. Many reported gaining an enhanced sense of their own identity and successes as they reflect on student questions.

It is often said that there is a divide between the University and Kingston communities. These partnerships demonstrate the wealth of opportunity that each community has to offer the other. It can be argued that it is, in fact, through these types of learning relationships that the divide between communities diminishes and we develop a greater recognition of what connects us - a common shared humanity.

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