In higher education, there exists a profound area often overlooked in favour of academic success – community engagement. It’s a transformative avenue that exposes students to real-world situations, prompting them to employ their acquired knowledge, challenge their viewpoints and grow as civic contributors.
We had the opportunity to discuss with Hanan El-Zoueiter, Director of Student Services at Toronto School of Management (TSoM), the importance of community engagement and its impact on students’ overall development.
“Community engagement refers to the active involvement of students in the communities they live in, whether that’s their local neighbourhood, school, or wider society,” El-Zoueiter explains. “It goes beyond traditional classroom learning and provides opportunities for students to interact with people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and experiences.”
El-Zoueiter’s role as a Student Engagement Team lead is to foster community engagement by guiding and supporting students, exposing them to these multifaceted benefits. She highlights several key reasons why community engagement is integral to students’ holistic growth:
Experiential Learning: Community engagement creates a platform for students to translate their theoretical knowledge into practice, fostering a deep understanding of the concepts. El-Zoueiter points out, “Community engagement allows students to apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life situations. They gain practical experience, develop critical thinking skills and learn problem-solving in a meaningful context.”
Social and Emotional Development: An active engagement with community members from various backgrounds encourages the development of empathy and social skills, enriching students’ emotional intelligence and resilience. El-Zoueiter adds, “They learn to communicate effectively, collaborate with others and navigate diverse perspectives. This helps them develop a sense of belonging.”
Civic Responsibility: El-Zoueiter emphasizes the role of community engagement in promoting civic responsibility, stating, “By addressing local issues, volunteering, or advocating for causes they care about, students develop a sense of civic responsibility.” It shapes students into active societal contributors and proactive agents of change.
Cultural Awareness and Global Perspective: Participating in community services exposes students to different cultures, traditions and viewpoints. “They develop cultural awareness, learn to appreciate diversity and gain a global outlook,” she explains. Such exposure breeds tolerance and open-mindedness, thus preparing students to be global citizens.
Career Exploration and Networking: By offering insight into diverse professional fields and fostering relationships with organizations and professionals, community engagement aids students’ career planning. El-Zoueiter comments, “This exposure helps them make informed decisions about their future and develop essential skills for the workplace.”
El-Zoueiter’s insights reveal how community engagement shapes students into well-rounded individuals ready to contribute meaningfully to society and the world. However, her insights come alive through real-world examples of community engagement TSoM students have experienced.
She recounts the impact of the two notable community engagement initiatives. The first, “The Million Reasons Run for SickKids,” saw students participate in a walk to raise funds for research at local children’s hospitals. The project instilled a strong sense of community in students.
The second initiative was collaborating with the World Sikh Organization on its “One Billion Rising Initiative.” This project aimed at raising awareness about abuse and violence against women. El-Zoueiter proudly shared, “The students managed to raise $5000 for this initiative. This significantly impacted them, creating a sense of accomplishment and understanding towards serious global issues.”
As exemplified by these initiatives, community engagement can inspire students to tackle societal challenges, cultivate a sense of responsibility and promote personal growth. El-Zoueiter states, “It nurtures well-rounded individuals who are prepared to contribute meaningfully to society and make a positive impact on the world around them.”
Backing Up With Data
The experiences shared by the TSoM students and El-Zoueiter’s assertions find strong support in academic research.
According to a National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) study, students participating in service-learning activities reported higher levels of personal and social development. Specifically, 78% noticed an improvement in their ability to work well with others, 76% gained a better understanding of people of other backgrounds and 70% enhanced their skills in solving complex real-world problems.
Further supporting El-Zoueiter’s points on career exploration and networking is a survey conducted by Hart Research Associates. The study included perspectives from 400 employers and 455 students on workforce preparedness. The results were compelling: 79% of employers were more likely to consider a job candidate who had participated in applied learning or project-based experiences, including community service projects. This underscores the importance of community engagement in enhancing students’ employability.