SFU's Semester in Dialogue fosters cross-discipline collaboration

Simon Fraser University’s semester in experiential education challenges students across disciplines to work together.
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Simon Fraser University professor Mark Winston has a long list of academic achievements. A fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he’s won the Manning Innovation Award of Distinction, the Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, and the B.C. gold medal in sciences and engineering, among other honours. An internationally renowned expert on bees, he’s also been featured in a documentary hosted by David Suzuki on The Nature of Things.

So it probably comes as a surprise to some in the community to learn that Winston had rotten marks at Boston University. “I was just bored,” he tells the Georgia Straight in an interview in his office at the SFU Harbour Centre campus. “I was one of those students who had really bad grades, but I published three peer-reviewed papers as an undergraduate student.”

This experience led him more than a decade ago to create a new model of experiential education at SFU called the Semester in Dialogue. Launched in September 2002, it brings together up to 20 students from a variety of disciplines in a collaborative program each semester. They work on a common topic, which, over the years, has included urban issues, the environment, religion, health care, food, and the arts. According to Winston, students are required to figure out how to do something that will make a difference in the assigned subject area.

“They’re exploring their voice in the context of a larger community around them,” he says. “And they discover that life works best when it’s networked. Projects work best when you’re connected. If you want to get something done, you have to figure out who to work with, how to work with them, and how to talk to them.”

He adds that about 500 “thought leaders” in the community have been brought in over the past decade to provide different perspectives, but they don’t deliver standard lectures. Instead, they engage in discussions. The Semester in Dialogue also retains fellows, such as urban-food expert Peter Ladner and former diplomat Paul Meyer, who share their expertise with students.

Graduates of the Semester in Dialogue include former Greenest City Action Plan public-engagement strategist Olive Dempsey, SlutWalk Vancouver march cofounder Katie Raso, SFU Public Square program manager Janet Webber, Gen Why Media artistic director Fiona Rayher, and Kei Baritugo, founder of BoldLove Communications.

“I think in our small way, we’ve created a subculture of very effective and well-networked people who are really starting to have an impact in changing a lot of the ways we have conversations in the city,” Winston states.

Over the phone, Dempsey says she learned during her semester that there are numerous ways to build a better world—and that they don’t always require fighting, though she concedes there are times when this is necessary. “It’s really rare that we in university have time to really reflect deeply on this idea of how we work together in communities and in society,” she states. “I think it’s really, really beneficial to sit with people who have different ideas from your own, and other perspectives, and really cultivate the skills to hear them and to speak with them and to learn from them. I feel like those are the most essential skills…that we could ever really learn in university.”

Winston explains that the Semester in Dialogue is rooted in what excited him as a student. He cites the mentorship he received from faculty members and the experience of working in a research lab. He also mentions that as an entymologist, he has observed how bees are highly communal and employ many different modes of communication. So he brought this element into the program.

“They function because everybody picks up their weight—nobody slacks off,” he notes.

Winston maintains that the Semester in Dialogue challenges students at levels they’ve never experienced before. He has no qualms about saying that he sets “very high expectations”, before adding that he’s never felt any student failed to meet them.

Baritugo can attest to this. A passionate and well-informed supporter of public health care, she says over the phone that she was pushed hard. She also admits to being troubled when Canada’s foremost advocate of a two-tier system, Dr. Brian Day, and public-private-partnerships proponent Larry Blain were invited to have a dialogue with students.

As she looks back several years later, she appreciates how the Semester in Dialogue challenged her underlying assumptions. “That was probably one of the best lessons I took away,” she comments.

Baritugo and her classmates were assigned to rewrite the Canada Health Act and then prepare a provincial health-care budget to reflect its objectives. It was, at times, an emotionally draining experience. “We realized that a lot of hospitals actually mismanage their funds,” Baritugo recalls.

But when she pointed out how systemic racism prevented foreign-trained nurses from working—and thereby reducing the overall costs by lowering overtime payments to nursing staff—she encountered a blasé response from some students.

Winston says it’s not enough for undergraduate students to merely attend classes, eventually graduate, and find jobs. “They have way more potential than that, even when they’re students,” he insists. “We try to tap into that potential to help students see that they can be bigger than they thought they could be. They could do more than they ever imagined. They can find a place in the world where they can make a difference and have an impact.”

In closing, Winston relates that he appreciates how SFU has evolved into a strongly community-focused institution. “I think we’re very much at the head of the pack in terms of the innovations that involve the student experience—students having opportunities to really do things, rather than just sit in a classroom,” he declares. “I think we’re very, very progressive in that area.”

Before the interview concludes, he concedes with a slight smile: “I probably would have gotten good grades if I had gone here.”

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