Tourist in your own backyard

I have been blessed there is no doubt having had the opportunity to see so many places around the world. Growing up in Sudan gave us the opportunity to explore the region of East Africa, living in the UAE for my first ‘proper’ job presented Australia, Hong Kong and Egypt as destinations, and working in Bangladesh opened up Nepal, Thailand, India and Cambodia. So I have been to my fair share of trips to the ‘exotic’. When living in Ireland from 2008 to 2013 I embarked on a mission to visit many of the historical and natural wonders of the island. My mother encouraged and accompanied me and then I explored even more locations when my partner and I started dating. It is an incredible gift to fall in love with your own land, a place and space I had been visiting my whole life but never really appreciated it as a ‘tourist’. It made me realize how important it is for us to understand where we come from before we can truly know who we are or where we are going.

When I accepted my position here in Geography at UBC, I wanted to not only apply the same approach for myself but also I wanted to share this realization with my students. Hence, during my first year I applied and was awarded a grant to design and develop a field school course which would take students to Williams Lake a small city in the interior of British Columbia. Williams Lake was selected given its scale, easy to visit in a limited time frame, but also the fact that despite the fact it is a 5 and a half hour drive from Vancouver it is a vastly different world right at our doorstep.

Now a field school course in my opinion should be a very different design and expectation level than your average course taught within the walls of the academy. I want students to really understand what it is like to function in day-today life addressing and dealing with some of the issues that we study and read about in books. I therefore designed the course so that student groups (I suggest 3 in each) work with a local community partner in Williams Lake (or your chosen location). It is then a relationship of reciprocity where students can engage in real-life experiences but community partners also gain by having the students apply their skills in answering a question for the community partner. My students work with a wide spread of community partners from within Williams Lake. So is it easy? Not at all but the reward is worth the effort. The key is to have students engage deeply with the community partner and with the issue, and this cannot be done in a week or two. I therefore have my students work with the community partners virtually during the term time, communicating via email, Skype or phone, before the actual site visit at the end of term for a period of two weeks. In order to prepare the students for their research we spend the term time working through some of the main social science methods enabling the students to apply their own project to the tasks required.

It is key that good relationships are established and maintained between the department and the community partners. There is an opportunity here for the academy to give back to the community but also we must not take advantage of their generosity. Students have the independence in their communication during the projects and while in Williams Lake, but these are long term relationships that must be nurtured. Students and community partners both offer nothing but positive feedback around the experience. I am including my syllabus here along with all the weekly worksheets in the hope that I might encourage more of you out there to design and develop local field schools in your areas. We can learn so much from the experience of places just a little outside our daily lives. This was very much reflected in the feedback from my students who were Vancouver born and raised but had never been outside the Lower Mainland – it was a whole new world for them.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to know more about the experience.