Originally written by Brandon Smith May 24, 2015 on www.RoadtoCACUSS.ca as part of #RoadtoCACUSS, a journey from Toronto to Vancouver.
#RoadtoCACUSS Note: This post is dedicated to the University of Toronto Office of Student Life, namely Erin, for challenging us to write a blog without the words ‘journey’, ‘opportunity’, ‘success’, ‘learning’, and ‘reflection.’ And yes, U of T rocks!
#RoadtoCACUSS and the RV, expectedly—but more profoundly—became a learning environment grounded in the work we do individually, as a team, but also for those from #RyersonSA, and beyond, who’ve engaged with this project. This was fostered through formal Community Development, quickly reminding our team that the spaces our students are in—on, off campus and non-physical—is integral to the development of our students’ identity and involvement outside of the classroom.
What is Community Development?
This can be defined as a process that builds the capacity of a group that shares a similar identity. I would argue that Community Development is the foundation of what we are aiming to build in Student Affairs and in higher education. This approach to capacity building travels ‘top down’ allowing those who are engaged themselves to continue building a sense of identity development in the work we do. I feel that shared purpose leads to commitment, and this can influence a sense of belongingness to an overall identity. How do you achieve this? By building community through relationships to gain understanding.
I am familiar with building, managing and adjourning communities beginning with my roles as a student leader working in residence. Did I expect an RV to provide our team with the same prospect? Not at all…but was very surprised. Residence Life is defined by community. Residence could once be viewed as controlled atmosphere that was an academic setting with a social balance. This has evolved: I consider residence to be one of the largest classrooms on a campus and it can be argued as a barometer of overall needs or trends of our students. But how can we reach and engage with students who don’t have the chance to live on campus? With online community building, like RU Student Life, we are able to stretch to this population and develop community from a grassroots approach. Whether it’s the controlled residence setting that nurtures challenge and support or an online fingerprint like social media, we are able to promote a sense of community in higher education through these learning environments. Using similar tools, the #RoadtoCACUSS team was also able to develop as a community, allowing us to learn with and from each other.
The #RoadtoCACUSS Identity: Building a Common Language
One of my favourite quotes comes from storyteller, Brené Brown: “Vulnerability is the only bridge to build connection.” We began planning this mid-fall last year. I would argue that the initial thought from our team, in some ways, was that we had six people who knew each other pretty well at work and won’t need anything really to build a team. After all, we wanted to discover programs at other institutions to bring back a common understanding, and we could easily obtain this transaction. Looking back, we had a shared identity, but needed to find something to bridge the identity to a sense of community.
We were aware of each other’s strengths and naturally flocked to the tasks and needs in order to make this idea a reality. We shaped our CACUSS proposal without challenge, discussed and understood our objectives and outcomes of this and began swimming in the deep end. By winter term, we realized that we are functioning as a team from a work-centred perspective; achieving measurable task and goals. However, a trip like this—working on the road in-between campus visits, disseminating information and even driving throughout the night—would test us in a new way. Vulnerability became our need.
Prior to departure, the group agreed to engage in a series of activities to help us build this team. From a roommate agreement facilitated by Heather, our Vice Provost, Students, to a ‘silly’ activity shaping chenille stems into a personal strength, challenge, commitment and hope to eventually establishing a planned shared space and an unplanned identity board that collected funny quotes and items collected from the trek – we had utilized tools to better understand personal and group needs, expectations to best encourage our learning, allowing us to dive into the ‘deep end’ with an understanding of the ‘water wings’ we can provide for each other. Through leadership from our Creative Unit, we’ve been able to tell our story and facilitate conversations with those beyond the walls of our RV. This has backed our own transformative learning and started a conversation much bigger, broader and deeper than I had expected which I am grateful for.
Community matters. I’m grateful for the #RoadtoCACUSS community that I have learned with and from. It’s important to take time to understand needs and effectively build community. Whether it’s a department, office, residence, online or even an RV, this is foundational to the work we do. #RoadtoCACUSS took a 30×10’ box on wheels and made it a space where we could live and learn and engage with a borderless community while representing the work we do.
In higher education, we need to continue looking at community development differently. It isn’t about programming. We need to influence a sense of purpose and meet our students where they are at – knowing why, when and how to do this face-to-face, in passing or interacting online, to bridge student learning in and outside of the classroom. The needs and demographic of our students are changing as we grow, and it is important to meet our students where they are at to ensure our students feel connected and supported to bring their whole selves to post-secondary education.
From a community like #RyersonSA where we share a common purpose to prioritize learning, mental well-being, personal & professional development, and community, a ‘what if’ question about a trip across the country was cultivated into a ride that has evolved and involved not just those who experienced this first-hand from being in the RV, but those who have read and even interacted with us online. Build your community and foster it—create a space for these ideas. You never know what ideas and opportunities will spark a new community’s development or even a voyage like this.