Learning citizenship from local to global

For Megan Stewart, earning two certificates along with her sociology degree helped her take volunteering to a new level.


Around convocation time, university graduates are often called to envision not just what kind of career they want to have, but what kind of world they want to help create. For Megan Stewart, who is graduating with a bachelor of arts in sociology, this question has been central to her post-secondary education experience and the main reason she pursued a Community Service-Learning (CSL) certificate alongside her degree.

“It’s great to go to school and be in the campus community, but getting the CSL certificate shows you can go beyond and create connections with communities, and shows you the value anyone can provide,” Stewart says. “It definitely made school move beyond attending lectures and writing tests to building relationships with people, so I was motivated to learn more in a deeper way.”

The U of A Faculty of Arts CSL program, launched as a pilot in 2003, combines coursework with community-based volunteer opportunities to facilitate learning and reflection inside and outside the classroom. Currently, the program comprises 75 courses spanning 10 faculties that provides volunteer opportunities with 180 community partners.

“There are two routes to earning the CSL certificate,” Stewart says. “You can take five classes with a CSL component or do four CSL classes and a non-profit opportunity. Each class has a 20-hour placement with a different community organization. You get to select which organization you want to work with.”

Variety in volunteering

Before coming to the U of A, Stewart sought volunteer opportunities through her high school, church and community league. But taking university courses with a CSL component gave her volunteerism a new dimension and enabled her to hone her writing and research skills.

“It definitely went to the next level with CSL,” she says. “Before university, I was a bit apprehensive because I thought short of running for the Students’ Union, there weren’t many community engagement or volunteering opportunities. CSL allowed me to get even more engaged and take my involvement from being surface-level to being about social activism in areas that I was and am passionate about.”

One cause Stewart is passionate about is identifying and challenging systemic sexism, which two of her CSL placements enabled her to explore by writing editorials for a blog that supports men in rejecting violence and taking on positive roles in the local community.

“I talked about harmful stereotypes of masculinity, specifically using violence as a way to show masculinity. So I tried to counter that harmful perception by looking at various studies and pop-culture examples,” Stewart says.

She also created an information pamphlet describing different forms of feminism for the Alberta Public Interest Research Group and produced content for Young Agrarians, a national organization that promotes sustainable food culture and environmental stewardship. Her other CSL placements involved helping with a program that provided healthy snacks and physical activities to elementary schools and presenting to high-school students about the benefits of participating in the CSL program. Stewart says her community-based learning was the ideal complement to her studies in sociology.

“Sociology looks at the social factors that make someone who they are and looks at how those factors can help and hinder the experiences that person has. CSL paired with this perfectly, as most communities I was engaged with had direct contact with dominant power structures in our society that saw them as disadvantaged. The great thing with CSL is that you get to engage with these people, meet them first-hand and learn from them, which helps dispel any stereotypes about that group.”

Window on the world

Acting locally is important, but Stewart also wanted to take a broader view of social issues, which led her to pursue the Global Citizenship certificate through the Faculty of Education. Satisfying the requirements for this certificate through prescribed coursework helped her consider activism and service in a larger context.

“It got me thinking about how we educate Canadian citizens to be helpful in a global world, and not do any harm,” she says. “I found the two certificates went hand in hand, because you want to help people but you want to fight these systemic problems at the local level and at a macro level.”

While Stewart plans to spend part of the summer working to support her ambitions in graduate school, she’ll also indulge her love of international travel, which she sees as a further extension of her educational orientation.

“I think that travel is so important in understanding yourself and others, which carries into CSL. The great thing about CSL is that you get to meet so many different people—people you likely wouldn't have met just sitting in a regular classroom,” she says. “Travelling gives you a spirit that wants to learn about new cultures and understand how different people go about their day-to-day lives, and I think this spirit directly applies to CSL too.”