Students may experience barriers at any point throughout their experiential learning experience, such as those relating to cost, time constraints and perceived expectations, among others. These barriers may become further amplified due to the compounding impact of intersecting identities, specifically when students identify with multiple equity-deserving groups (e.g., a Racialized student who is also part of the 2SLGBTQ+ community). It is important to reduce and remove barriers where possible to help equity-deserving students access opportunities and gain the maximum benefit from participating.
Students with disabilities may experience barriers in accessing experiential learning opportunities, potentially leading to decreased participation (Stirling, Milne & Goldman, 2020). Students with ongoing or temporary disabilities may need accommodations and flexibility to fully participate in EL, just as they might for other activities or assignments. In the context of work-integrated learning or community-engaged learning, it is also important to consider how academic accommodations might translate to the external partner site or if differing accommodations may be needed. As a reminder, any diagnostic information is considered private medical data under the Ontario Human Rights Code, and students should not be asked to disclose their diagnosis in the process of requesting accommodations.
- Familiarize yourself with common accommodation requests. These can include assistive technology, permission to work from home, a flexible schedule, a workspace with minimal distractions, frequent breaks and large print materials, among others.
- Students should be central to, and engaged in, every step of the accommodations process. Encourage students to register with University of Toronto’s Accessibility Services, where appropriate, as they can work with students to identify potential accommodations before the EL opportunity is scheduled to begin. While EL practitioners may not be involved in this process, if helpful for context and planning purposes, factors that are typically considered in this process can include: functional limitations arising from the disability; previous accommodations; task analysis; essential requirements of the opportunity; student input into what works for them and what does not; and anticipated barriers.
- Depending on the size of the opportunity, consider dedicated staff support from individuals who specialize in working with students with disabilities participating in EL, and/or connect with U of T Accessibility Services to learn about whom you can refer students to, should they need additional guidance.
Equity-deserving students often experience a lack of institutional support as a primary barrier to EL opportunities (Najmabadi, 2017). Research shows that there are a range of visible and invisible barriers, including GPA requirements, tacit interview expectations and geographic location (Mackaway, Winchester-Seeto & Rowe, 2013). By proactively offering and/or connecting students to resources that reduce or remove barriers, you can help students feel more valued, engaged and supported.
- Provide pre-experience training sessions on topics relevant to the EL opportunity (e.g., community-engagement principles, interviewing, resume writing, health & safety, etc.), framed from an equity, diversity, inclusion and access (EDIA) perspective to sufficiently prepare students for the opportunity. Where possible, provide training in a variety of formats, and ensure synchronous workshops are offered at various times so they are accessible to all participants; you may also consider providing recordings for students to access after the workshop has concluded. These sessions can be particularly helpful for students who may not have the social or cultural capital to otherwise interpret tacit norms and expectations, particularly in a workplace setting. The Centre for Community Partnerships (for community-engaged learning opportunities) and/or the Experiential Learning and Outreach Support Office (Faculty of Arts & Science) or your divisional EL office (for experiential learning opportunities, more broadly) can assist you in designing and/or delivering these types of pre-experience training sessions.
- Offer a variety of options for students to navigate how they might position involvement with identity-related organizations in their job application documents and interviews (e.g., cultural or religious groups). Rather than telling students what they "should" do, focus instead on approaches to highlighting their skills and experiences, and let them decide how much of their identity they feel comfortable revealing via the EL opportunity’s application process.
- If students are expected to secure their own opportunities, reflect on who may have the networks and privilege to benefit from this model. Consider offering lists of organizations that have hosted students in the past, or strategies for finding opportunities. Be proactive about reaching out to all students as they continue seeking opportunities to stay informed about any barriers they may be facing, and additional supports that might be required.
- Provide opportunities to connect and create spaces where students feel comfortable disclosing barriers to the relevant individual or office, so that appropriate support can be provided.
- Consider offering students flexible options, including virtual placements/projects for students with restrictions on placement location, or the use of on-campus placements (Mackaway, Winchester-Seeto, & Rowe, 2013).
- Provide students with resources and tailored support related to their mental and emotional well-being (e.g., Student Mental Health Resource). For example, securing an internship can be a challenging process, filled with ups and downs. It is important to acknowledge the difficulties while simultaneously providing resources and services that can help students navigate the process.
An experiential learning opportunity might be a student’s first exposure to a workplace, specific community setting or different organizational cultures. Some students may be unfamiliar with the concept of organizational culture, and how to communicate effectively and receive feedback in a professional context. They might also be unaware of the expectations of the communities they are partnering with. Providing training or professional development sessions with an EDIA lens can help students thrive in the opportunity and can serve to benefit students even after they graduate (Phillips-Davis, 2021).
- Consider offering cultural awareness training if students will be immersed in an unfamiliar cultural context through the EL experience (e.g., international experiences). For example, in some cultures, eye contact is considered respectful, whereas in others, not making eye contact is considered respectful; cultural awareness training can help students understand relevant social norms. Connect with the Anti-Racism and Cultural Diversity Office and/or Centre for International Experience (CIE) to receive guidance on these topics.
- Encourage students to learn more about the opportunity and provide examples of how various organizational cultures might differ. For instance, the assumptions around formality in a bank might be quite different from those in a small community organization. It can also be helpful to have students consider how local culture intersects with organizational culture with respect to work practices and principles.
- Discuss general expectations when working in an in-person or remote environment and provide clear instructions on who they should reach out to if they have concerns or questions. While professionalism is often spoken about in relation to placements, notions of professionalism can be heavily coded (e.g., who is considered more or less professional based on their identity or presentation?), so you may consider incorporating critical reflection questions on the topic of professionalism in your EL preparation.
- Consider hosting an alumni panel where students can ask questions and learn from a diversity of experiences (e.g., engaging in an EL opportunity as a first-generation student, an international student or a student with a disability). Alumni may be well-positioned to answer questions that current students may have, such as approaches to building good working relationships, and how to request and process supervisor feedback.
- Provide spaces for students to connect with their peers, share their experience and gain feedback. It can also be helpful to have students participate in placements or research opportunities in pairs or in a cohort, or to assign a specific peer they can reach out to if they need support, such as through a peer mentoring program.
Many workplace issues are left unreported by students for a variety of reasons. One reason is students do not know who they are supposed to report the concern to. Another reason is students may not know when it is important to report a concern. For example, microaggressions are a form of discrimination that students may not know when or how to address. Students may be unaware of what constitutes discrimination or harassment and could be reluctant to report potential issues, and/or may not feel safe approaching staff or faculty members with their concerns. As experiential learning practitioners, it is crucial to be informed how to appropriately support students in identifying and responding to discrimination and harassment, as well as to foster an environment where students feel supported in voicing their concerns.
- To help inform and support students, provide examples of common workplace issues (including discrimination and harassment) and explicitly state that these examples are not exhaustive. Be sure to include guidance on who, how and when students might reach out about a concern.
- Offer training in workplace rights as outlined in the Occupational Health and Safety Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code, as part of the EL opportunity preparation. Connect with Career Exploration and Education and/or Accessibility Services to request support with training in these areas, including learning about their rights and responsibilities. U of T’s Downtown Legal Services may also be able to provide plain language workshops on employment law.
- Prior to participation in EL, emphasize that students should report any experiences that make them uncomfortable or unsafe, especially when they have doubts about how to address that issue.
- Ensure that students have a consistent point of contact (a faculty or staff member for example), who can redirect them to appropriate resources when necessary. The point of contact would then follow applicable internal processes to address student concerns. Faculty of Arts & Science staff and faculty members can contact the Office of High Risk, Faculty Support and Mental Health for support in this area.
Students participating in experiential learning opportunities can sometimes feel disconnected from their institution, peers and regular routine. For students with strong ties to family, campus or social networks, participating in EL can sometimes be particularly isolating, and can impact their performance — even leading to students withdrawing from EL opportunities. It is important to recognize the ways in which we can enhance overall student experience, as well as our responsibility to support students as they shift into the EL opportunity (sometimes to a new community context or workplace) and then shift back to their academics.
- Provide a structured opportunity, such as a pre-experience reflection, for students to set their own personal learning goals before the beginning of the experience. Encourage students to consider personal challenges they might experience upfront and guide them to think about developing strategies for mitigating those challenges.
- Where possible and relevant, offer students a supported introduction to the EL opportunity (e.g., a pre-placement meeting with a student, yourself and the placement supervisor) to facilitate a smooth transition and provide students with the space to discuss expectations, gain familiarity with the organization and ask any questions they might have.
- Solicit student feedback on a regular basis to assess whether students’ experiences are in alignment with personal and/or programmatic learning goals; this can allow you to address issues early on.
- Provide opportunities for students to connect either in-person or virtually with their peers to share experiences and support one another. This can be through small or large group gatherings, online discussion boards, social media groups or informal check-ins.
- A mid-point evaluation is helpful to understand how students are adapting to their environment. For students engaging in EL off-campus, consider organizing a site visit or a check-in at least once with each student during the experience. Keep in mind that some students may be more forthcoming about their experiences in a one-on-one meeting, whereas others may prefer to fill out a survey or write about their experience. Check-in questions might include:
- What does your typical day look like?
- Are your current responsibilities what you expected?
- Would you recommend this opportunity to another student? Why or why not?
- How would you rate your performance?
- Do you feel comfortable in your workspace or community setting?
- What kinds of things have contributed to you feeling comfortable/uncomfortable?
- Is the experience as you expected?