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‘Valuable resource’

Pilot project offers graduate students social enterprise work experience

By Susan White

A partnership at Memorial is offering graduate students the chance to make a difference and gain tangible work experience by helping to grow and support social enterprises.

The School of Graduate Studies (SGS) and the  Centre for Social Enterprise (CSE) launched a pilot project in January that placed five graduate students from different disciplines in semester-long work placements at social enterprises in St. John’s.

Aisha Penney, left, and Thanjida Akhter, pictured at The Network Cafe at the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing and Homelessness Network in St. John's.
From left, Aisha Penney and Thanjida Akhter at The Network Cafe at the N.L. Housing and Homelessness Network in St. John’s.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Our students often say that they would like to be integrated into the community more and given the opportunity to make contacts and gain practical experience,” said Dr. Aimée Surprenant, dean of the School of Graduate Studies.

“Our core mission is to contribute to the province and this is one way of accomplishing that goal.”

Student impact

Thanjida Akhter and Aisha Penney were two of the students who did work placements through the program.

Ms. Akhter, a master of science in computer science student, worked at Guide to the Good; Ms. Penney, a master of employment relations student, completed her placement at the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing and Homelessness Network.

“It’s motivating to know that the work you are doing is making a difference.” — Aisha Penney

Ms. Penney, who worked as a proposal writer, says she thought it would be a great opportunity to get work experience in a social enterprise, as well as help contribute to the province.

“I feel as though my placement has impacted my future career plans,” she said.

“I really enjoyed working for the Homelessness Network because of the impact they are making in the province. It’s motivating to know that the work you are doing is making a difference. In the future, I would like to work with an organization that is helping people.”

For Ms. Akhter, the placement allowed her to bring information technology-related skills to an organization in need of them. It also enabled her to experience working with people from different disciplines and backgrounds.

It’s also allowing her to graduate this spring.

“I had several interviews for work terms for the winter of 2018,” she said.

“I was selected for a couple of positions here in St. John’s as a computer science intern. Unfortunately, one position was cancelled and another position didn’t receive the funding as planned. If I were not able to find this work term, I would not be able to complete my work term requirement for my degree this semester.”

Strengthening social enterprise sector

The Centre for Social Enterprise already offers work placements in social enterprises for undergraduate students.

Nicole Helwig, the centre’s manager, says the pilot project allows Memorial, graduate students and community groups to mutually benefit.

“These opportunities give students the chance to discover social enterprise and explore possible career paths regardless of their field of study, and it also gives international students the chance to gain Canadian work experience,” she said.

“Our centre has an objective to strengthen social enterprise in the province. This initiative enables that objective, as graduate students bring additional capacity to organizations that are already stretched to maximize the human resources that they have. Graduate students bring knowledge, competencies and experience at a level beyond that of undergraduate students.”

Ms. Helwig says the pilot project proves there is interest from students for this kind of experience and there is demand in the community for this particular kind of help. She also says it has been “a wonderful way” to continue the centre’s approach of blending work integrated experiential learning with community engagement in mutually beneficial ways.

‘Fruitful collaborations’

Dr. Surprenant says the pilot project was a success and they hope to grow it in the future. She says placing students in the community accomplishes multiple objectives.

“First, the business enterprise benefits from the contribution of expertise and problem-solving know-how by the students,” she said.

“Second, the students benefit by gaining practical experience in applying their ideas in a real-world setting, as well as making contacts that could lead to employment options. Finally, the whole community benefits by having flourishing social enterprises buoyed and sustained by these fruitful collaborations. We feel it is a valuable resource to not only our students but also to our provincial communities.”

The SGS and CSE plan to offer a second round of graduate student work placements in social enterprises this fall.

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