Category: academics Page 1 of 13

Is My Participation Necessary?: Reflecting on Local Development and Volunteerism | Hannah Peters

I spent last semester learning about and practicing community-based development and local participatory methods in Kenton Lobe’s course, Participatory Local Development.

I’ve concluded that the world doesn’t always need my participation, nor my attempts at development. However. I desperately need to participate. I might not need to change the world; I might need the world to change me.

This seminar-style class looked at methods for mobilizing local communities to tackle complex and intractable issues. Every Wednesday evening, our class convened to work through three overarching questions:

  1. Development of what?
  2. Why local?
  3. Whose participation?

Although we consulted the work of development scholars and composed critical reflection papers on the subject, much of our learning happened through less conventional methods. Kenton rarely gave lectures. Instead, we drew. We moved. We debated and argued and disputed and discussed. We tried out participatory methods for ourselves, practicing facilitation, time-keeping, workshopping, and consensus decision-making.

In an intense and drawn-out process, we also managed to collectively determine an appropriate final project for the class: eight hours of volunteering for an organization working on food insecurity and a final reflection on the experience. (This blog post is in fact my final reflection!)

I ended up at Agape Table, a local non-profit organization, alongside my classmate Kat. Agape Table cares for Winnipeg’s most vulnerable people by distributing bagged meals, clothing, and hygiene products.

Kat and I woke up bright and early to make it across town for our 7:00 AM shift. When we arrived there was little fanfare, just some cursory directions about our respective tasks. We promptly began bagging lunches, working alongside a dozen other volunteers to get the food out the door.

I was tasked with putting soup containers into paper bags, an admittedly menial job. I had to wait for the volunteer ahead of me to ladle out the soup and close the lid, and I found myself standing around, waiting, with little to do. Truthfully, this was rather humbling. Although I didn’t delude myself into thinking this four-hour shift was going to save the world, I expected to at least feel useful.

Thankfully, the pace picked up later in the shift, until we were encouraged to take a break. Although probably intended as a 15-minute pause, Kat and I began to visit with Agape Table’s General Manager Dave Feniuk, and our break turned into nearly an hour of idleness.

I found our conversation with Dave fascinating, as he shared about Agape Table’s work, different complications they’d faced, their core values, and advice for working in the non-profit world. Even so, I felt guilty for taking such a long break. Shouldn’t I be on the floor, contributing to that morning’s work?

Eventually we resumed our work, but by the time I left, I was questioning how much of a help I’d even been. I was new and needed direction from the more experienced volunteers. I hadn’t put in very many hours of work. And the work I did do wasn’t anything extraordinary.

Truly, I was not essential. The success of Agape Table that morning didn’t depend on me and my labour. My presence for those four hours wasn’t changing the outcome of the morning. I wasn’t saving the world through my volunteering, nor saving Winnipeg from food insecurity.

So what’s the point, then? Why bother volunteering at all?

I’ve wrestled with this question in the days since my first shift. I’ve concluded that although my volunteering doesn’t necessarily change the wider world, it does change my world.

In that first shift, which lasted little more than four hours, I learned a lot. I learned about Winnipeg and the neighbourhood Agape Table serves; about food insecurity, homelessness, addiction, and desperation; about generosity, service, and the unconditional love this organization practices. I found myself inspired and energized. Even when I felt redundant and expendable, I wanted to come back! I desired to join the team, become more knowledgeable, and broaden my perspective.

I found myself appreciating the simplicity and the repetition of the tasks. It was a different pace from the urgency of university life. My life at CMU can also sometimes become shockingly insular as I spend most of my time on campus. Agape Table reminded me of the wider community, while challenging me to slow down and be present. Plus, there was a deep satisfaction in the “doing.” Paradoxically, the work felt meaningful, even as my individual contributions felt unlikely to make a sizeable difference. I felt like I was part of something important.

I’m eager to return to Agape Table—Kat and I are already talking about making a volunteer shift a regular part of our schedule and discussing how we might persuade others to join us. Because volunteering isn’t always about the outcome. I do believe, without a doubt, that individuals can make a difference. My point is to reframe our expectations of giving and volunteering to appreciate the process, regardless of the quantifiable outcomes. It’s not often going to eliminate hunger or overcome homelessness. And yet, it’s important all the same.

So, I encourage you to participate in your community. Not to achieve some measurable goal, or for the praise, or to feel important. Do it for the transformation that occurs in the doing. There is personal transformation that occurs in the process of working for change. Your contributions to the world—although important in their own right—are absolutely revolutionary for you, your perspective, and your understanding of the world.

Hannah Peters is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in political studies.

What are people for? | Sarah Wood

The core question that guided our class, Ways of Knowing, last semester was: “What are people for?” This felt daunting at first. I was just getting the hang of things when suddenly I was asked to academically evaluate the purpose of my existence. Regardless of the intimidating question, my classmates and I powered through, and I’m very glad we did.

Entering university can be quite intimidating, especially when stepping into a completely unfamiliar environment. It’s natural to feel uncertain about what lies ahead. However, one of the most reassuring aspects of the Ways of Knowing course was the shared sense of unfamiliarity among everyone. Since each student in the class was in their first year, we were all in the same boat, navigating the newness together. This created a unique atmosphere where we could lean on each other for support as we figured out how to balance all that came at us. Thanks to the small class sizes, I found myself engaging with classmates I might not have crossed paths with otherwise, leading to the formation of lasting friendships.

Once a month, we would combine with two other Ways of Knowing class sections, to partake in a roundtable discussion. These sessions gave us the opportunity to delve deeper into the concepts that were explored in our weekly readings. They served as a fantastic way for us to broaden our perspectives and engage in conversations with both peers and professors alike. During these discussions we were strongly encouraged to intermingle with students from different classes, which forced us to reach out and form new connections that may have otherwise remained undiscovered. Many of my friendships here at CMU were sparked in these classes. Without having this shared experience with all my fellow first years, I’m certain I would not have made as many connections as I have.

This class gave everyone an opportunity to let their creativity flourish. As the semester drew to a close, each student was tasked with crafting a representation of their own understanding of the core inquiry of the course, “What are people for?” The finished projects were showcased during a symposium held at the end of the year. The open-ended prompt led to a diverse array of projects, ranging from cultural culinary explorations to large catapult designs, from original musical compositions to life-sized tree models. This experience emphasized the inevitable variety that surfaces when projects are approached with such openness, highlighting the individuality of each student’s response to the main question. It was truly incredible to see what everyone came up with when given the opportunity to creatively represent their opinion.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of university life, the Ways of Knowing class felt like a breath of fresh air. The professors were awesome—they genuinely cared about how we were doing and put in a considerable amount of effort to ensure we had fun in class. There were many activities that accompanied the material we read prior to class, and we were often rewarded with chocolate (shoutout Professor Karen Ridd!). This course created a space where our voices were not only heard, but valued. Ways of Knowing was truly a blast!

Sarah Wood just completed her first year of a Bachelor of Arts degree.

A reflection on the loving and eating in Eat, Love, Reflect | Mike Thiessen

When John Boopalan gave a 90-second pitch of his upcoming course, Eat, Love, Reflect, at the annual course launch forum back in April, I knew right away that it would be the only possible option for me to wrap up my Biblical and Theological Studies requirements at CMU. It was just too good to pass up (a thought many other people also had—the course apparently filled up within several hours of registration opening).

In the course description of Eat, Love, Reflect John asks, “What would it mean to engage head, heart, and taste buds in the pursuit of spiritual and social transformation?” Paired with this is a notion that is central to the course: balancing love of God, love of self, and love of others through the act of eating. These two main ideas are emphasized every single week. The readings typically consist of New Testament passages featuring Jesus eating with others, theological writings exploring these events, and articles that are not explicitly religious looking at topics such as food insecurity, Indigenous understandings of bodily nourishment, and general reflections on the act of eating.

Mike Thiessen

Eat, Love, Reflect is very much a discussion-based class. There is always a lively lecture component delivered by John (and occasionally other guests), but a good deal of time in class is devoted to talking with classmates, either in pairs, small groups, or all together. This is where a lot of the reflection in the “Reflect” part of the title comes into play.

Of course, it would be complete nonsense to have a course about food and not eat, and we’ve made sure to get our fair share of eating in. We took a trip to a downtown McDonald’s to consider the convenience of food and the intentionality of eating. We ate saskatoon and rhubarb platz on the front lawn of another professor to ponder hospitality. And, most excitingly, we took a field trip to Silverwinds Colony southeast of Carman to share a meal with the Hutterites there, where we thought about the importance of eating as part of a community on a regular basis.

As someone who grew up on a farm with both crops and cattle, I’ve always been very aware of where my food comes from—helping in the garden was always a mandatory summertime chore, and butchering beef and pork at my grandparents’ place has been an extended family affair for my entire life. Historically, I have had a good understanding of and relationship with the food I eat. This class has taken this to another level, however. The philosophy and theology of eating have permeated my mealtimes, with readings and lectures now often coming to mind when I eat. Particularly, I’ve become much more conscious of the love involved in preparing, sharing, and eating food together. Eat, Love, Reflect has been a true joy to be part of, and I am looking forward to the final four weeks, during which there will be even more learning, eating, and loving.

Mike Thiessen is a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in English.

“One of the best decisions I have ever made” | Cloe Penner

I honestly don’t know ‘why CMU?’

Cloe Penner

I am an out-of-province student from Ontario. Since CMU is a small university, you might think it’s not heard of in other provinces, much less the world. You would be mostly correct from my experience. I had not known that CMU existed until my mama’s friend mentioned that one of her daughters went there. At that point I hadn’t even decided if I wanted to apply for post-secondary education yet or take a gap year. I knew that eventually I wanted to go and be the first person in my immediate family to go to university, but I had no direction for that desire.

My high school’s guidance counsellors had been breathing down our necks, encouraging us seniors to apply for anything, really, as long as we applied. Apparently in the last few years there had been a decline of students going into post-secondary education, and the guidance department had made it their mission to get that percentage up that year. As this was during the pandemic, I can’t say I’m surprised with that outcome.

Nevertheless, I applied to CMU and only to CMU, after researching possible programs and classes. Looking back, I would say there was a nudge there, as I never really second-guessed my decision to apply. I don’t really have a name for that nudge—it could have been God, or just a gut feeling. I knew that if I got in, I would have to move to another province, and while that was certainly daunting, it was very much a problem for future me. The fact that CMU was a smaller, Mennonite-founded school, and cheaper than almost everything in Ontario, definitely sold it to my parents. The process was scary, but listening to that nudge gave me a great beginning to a new chapter of life.

Obviously, I am now a student here at CMU, in my second year and loving it. The decision to move here, away from anything familiar, was hard; it still is sometimes. Now that I have a year under my belt, I can reflect back and say it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

The start of my first year was tough. It was hard making friends and settling into a whole new world, rising to a more challenging academic level and having my life so uprooted. That was when the doubt grabbed me. But living in residence brings the community right in front of you. Eventually I stepped out of my comfort zone and found confidence to make friends and develop a life here. That led to self-discoveries and the first steps to becoming an independent adult without my life and community back in Ontario, to really figure out who I am away from all the same influences.

CMU’s campus

Coming to CMU has given me a new perspective on life and changed my life quite literally and philosophically. The academics made me realize how much I love learning when it’s something I actually care about, and the classes are small and interesting enough to keep me engaged and on top of things. (That isn’t to say I don’t procrastinate. I am still a student, it’s part of our ramen-fueled bodies!) So that’s why I stayed. I found a place that feels like home away from home, that allows me to be who I am and be a student dedicated to something I enjoy learning.

Sometimes if we aren’t totally sure of what we’re doing, what’s going to happen, or if the direction we’re taking is the best one, the future has a way of surprising us. And then maybe that unknown future could be one of the best things that helps you become you.

Cloe Penner is a second-year Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in history.

Asians in STEM: Honourable yet onerous work | Katrina Lengsavath

I remember being in grade one, sitting at the kitchen table doing my math homework with my sweet grandma, or “Khun Ya.” Helping me in her lingual mosaic of Thai and English, we added and subtracted pencils, beads, and tamarind seeds. We snacked on pieces of fruit as we drew tallies and diagrams to practice my arithmetic after school.

I remember my grandpa, my “Khun Pu,” a man of few words, who would eagerly sit counting trains with me and my sister as they rumbled by the window of my grandparents’ seniors apartment. He taught me how to fold paper airplanes and boats, showing me how to achieve crisp, precise creases with the edge of my thumbnail. He emphasized to me that experts who designed these vessels for a living must also be very precise in their calculations and very smart. 

These are the memories that come to me when I ponder my early encounters with mathematics. Math and science were my favourite subjects during early school years, until I got my hands on chapter books. Storytelling and writing quickly became STEM’s rival in my life.

Katrina Lengsavath, third-year CMU student
Katrina Lengsavath, third-year CMU student

A familiar stereotype is that many Asian immigrant parents have persuasively prophetic voices over their children’s career paths, considering “doctor, lawyer, dentist” as the sacred trinity of occupational options. Other acceptable paths may include becoming a nurse, pharmacist, scientist, or engineer. Many Asians end up in such professions. 

According to Joan C. Williams et al. in The Atlantic, “…this belief has pervaded American pop culture and media for decades…Since the stereotype ostensibly is a compliment, there’s a temptation to think that pursuing careers in science, technology, math, and engineering is easier for Asian Americans.” At the end of the day, after our families struggled, escaping or immigrating to North America for safety or the potential of success, they want to see their kids succeed in the Western world.

Despite this stereotype and the prevalence of Asians in the sciences, Asians are disproportionately unacclaimed in these fields. How does this dichotomy exist?

Standards set by the National Institute of Health say people who identify as Asian overall are not underrepresented in STEM.* Research spearheaded by Yuh Nung Jan, professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the University of California San Francisco, found that “Asian Americans, who make up about 7% of the U.S. population, are overrepresented in biomedical research in the United States, making up more than 20% of the field’s researchers. Yet [Jan] found that Asian scientists have received just 57 out of 838 [prestigious science] prizes included in the study, which only looked at American awards. Asian women scientists have fared far worse, receiving less than 1% of the prizes.”

More broadly, in a study conducted by the National Science Foundation in 2015, only a mere 4–6% of degree holders in science and engineering are BIPOC women and men, and such degree holders from BIPOC minority groups were less likely to receive federal grants or contracts than their White counterparts within research-intensive institutions.

This gender and racial disparity in STEM shows up in my education. I learned much about Austrian monk Gregor Mendel and his pea plants and Alexander Fleming for his discovery of penicillin, the very first antibiotic. Comparably, it wasn’t ages ago that Watson and Crick were called out for taking more credit than they should have for Rosalind Franklin’s confirmation of DNA’s double-helix shape. Further, many science students have probably studied Okazaki fragments in their classes. How commonly do people know that they were discovered in the 1960s by Tsuneko Okazaki, a molecular biologist and Japanese woman?

2023 Scientist in Residence Poster

Since the days of counting mandarin oranges at the kitchen table with my Khun Ya, I have grown into a young woman of colour pursuing sciences. I am currently a student serving on CMU’s faculty-run Science and Faith Initiatives Committee, and I’m thrilled that we are welcoming Dr. Francis Su into the CMU community as the very first BIPOC Scientist in Residence. 

Dr. Su is an American mathematician, Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, former president of the Mathematical Association of America, and author of Mathematics for Human Flourishing. I’m looking forward to his discussions on the challenges and opportunities for equity, diversity, and inclusion in mathematics and the sciences. How can we make STEM spaces more just for everyone? Dr. Su will also illuminate the beauty and humanity of mathematics helping us all flourish. I would encourage everyone to check out this year’s Scientist in Residence lecture series at CMU.

I never had to be convinced to like school or studying, and I was naturally inclined towards STEM. I am one of many other first-generation anomalies who never actually felt stereotypical pressure to become the Asian “doctor, lawyer, or dentist” growing up. What does it mean or represent, when I get to choose my fate and go into STEM, anyway? Dr. Su’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the gender gap in STEM asserts how, “…a healthy diversity of deserving winners represents a community’s visible commitment to encouraging its least visible members, who may one day do great things.”

BIPOC individuals and women choosing to go into STEM, whether honourable or onerous, face a glass ceiling of systemic and social biases that hinder access and recognition for excellence in STEM. I don’t know if immigrant or BIPOC grandparents all over the world would have imagined that their grandkids, who they tutored in arithmetic with spoons and raisins in a country and language new to them, would grow up to choose the art of sciences. Students like me depend on initiatives that highlight and pay respect to the STEM achievements of ethnic minorities. Without a doubt, our successes will be their success story, too.

Katrina Lengsavath is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in Arts and Science with concentrations in biochemistry and music. She also co-leads the CMU Science Students’ Association. Her writing here was inspired by Dr. Su’s op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.

* Some Asian subgroups may be underrepresented, such as Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. This observation from the National Institute of Health is based on an amalgamation of all Asian groups.

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