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Providing Post-Secondary Students With Work Experience

It was this Global News video that got my attention:

Without directly supporting any one party’s agenda and without aligning with a Liberal agenda, I can get behind our Prime Minister’s statements in this video. What is most striking to me, a sociologist who studied labour for an honours degree, is that the issues PM Trudeau is discussing in this clip are exactly the same issues my generation (graduated from university in 2005 and 2009) and subsequent generations have faced for well over a decade: to gain employment using our degrees we need to have work experience in our respective fields. Well, easier said than done when you’re an honours student in a full course load who is also volunteering and trying to have a social life.

Upon graduating from my first degree at Acadia University – kinesiology – in 2005 I heard the same feedback from employers and read the same requirements in every job posting: “must have experience”. I’m sorry, where was the time to be gainfully or otherwise employed during my full course load, between dance classes, outside of volunteering, and apart from seeing friends? When I returned to university for my sociology degree I decided to revamp the purposes of the not-for-profit dance programme I was running.

As a dancer, kinesiologist, and entrepreneur I looked hard at the community dance programme in front of me. I had an opportunity, as the programme coordinator, to mould it into something that could serve both my community and me in various ways. The programme ran from September-April (with the academic calendar) with a long break over Christmas vacation it culminated with a recital in April just before final exams. Spring technique classes followed and summer dance camps kept our teen dancers off the streets and our younger dancers in [day] care. Our teachers came from a talented pool of dancers who came to our university from all over Canada and the world. With such diversity, we could offer a plethora of styles of dance not commonly found at other studios including highland, Irish, clogging, Bollywood, acrobatics, and breakdance. With a minimal time commitment, teachers who specialized in several styles could take on as many or few classes as they wished. In providing an honourarium for their commitment, we retained teachers not only throughout the dance season (Sept-April) but year after year. Some of our staff remained with us for the entire duration of their four-year undergrad and then beyond if they stayed at our university for their graduate degree. Some, like me, even stayed in the area after graduating and continued to support our programme.

Being that our organization was completely student run, we required our staff not only to teach dance but also to contribute to the operations of the programme. Some staff didn’t even teach – they participated by running the finances, organizing the fundraising, or any of the other million tasks involved in the success of a not-for-profit dance programme. We had university students from all fields of study including kinesiology, business, science, and music theatre. With the School of Music we also had a music theatre programme that taught dance and voice. Often, we connected course projects to examine our programme or take advantage of free marketing plans created by business students thereby saving us money to otherwise direct into programming and giving students actual work related experience in their fields.

As a university with a transient population, we took advantage of the possibility of only having a staff member for a short term. Every staff was encouraged to evaluate and re-evaluate our protocols to provide feedback for change. One-on-one meetings facilitated this feedback opportunity whereas staff meetings provided an opportunity for ideas to come together and be evaluated by the group. There were also challenges with having a transient teaching staff and this is why class syllabi were so important for ensuring students were gaining new skills and building on existing ones. Overall it was to the student’s benefits to have different teachers every 2-4 years so their stylistic skills and interpersonal relationships could grow.

Another important aspect of our programme is providing opportunities for financially accessible physical activity participation in our rural community. The programme provides university students who mostly come from out-of-town with an opportunity to connect to the small town community and essentially give back using their specific skills and areas of interest. Not only does this help the university students to gain work experience but also instill a sense of giving to the community they may only be a part of for a short period.

With a new government in place and leadership focused on different issues compared to the Conservative reign over the past two elections, I expect to see real and tangible changes to the issues faced by our youth populations. All Canadians must understand that these issues create various social conditions that affect us as citizens and affect our economy. Gaining work experience in specific fields of study will help our university populations gain employment and contribute positively to the labour force and our economy. Certainly there are challenges to making this happen for post-secondary students but recognizing that there is an issue is a step toward a solution. Another important piece of the puzzle is initiating and supporting programmes that contribute to the solution. Optimistically, this should be an interesting four years of government in Canada.

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