A Class Act

Three medical students are reaching out to help junior high students develop leadership skills to tackle poverty

Samantha Lam, Susie Youn and Qaasim Mian
Photograph by Eugene Uhuad

What does it mean to be a leader? How can we make a positive impact in the community? How should we address social issues like poverty? Those are just some of the questions that Grade 8 and 9 students at McKernan School tackled as part of a community learning project initiated by three University of Alberta medical students this past fall.

I think it will be great in teaching kids a lot about what they can do within their community to make it better and to support people.
– Anastasia Deligianis

The U of A students are particularly interested in focusing on poverty in Edmonton and what local groups are doing to address it, so they are arranging for a variety of people from organizations to come to the classrooms to present to the students. Some of the organizations they’ve been in discussions with include United Way, EndPoverty Edmonton, the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, Edmonton’s Food Bank, the Mustard Seed, and RISE (Reconciliation in Solidarity Edmonton). “There are so many groups doing great stuff, so to bring that kind of expertise into the classroom, it’s been very exciting,” says Samantha Lam, one of the U of A students behind the pilot project.

“We had a really positive experience personally in terms of community service learning – volunteering and being really involved with the community and being involved with social justice causes,” says Lam. “We realized not everybody gets those experiences and it’s hard to have an authentic experience, especially at a young age. So we wanted to bring that to a classroom.”

The program, called CommunityConnect, has been integrated into the Grade 8 and 9 leadership classes at McKernan, and so far the response from students has been overwhelmingly positive. “The students and the teachers have been quite enthusiastic about it,” says Lam.

Anastasia Deligianis, one of the leadership instructors at McKernan who is working with the U of A students on the project, agrees. “We had United Way come in and they did the poverty simulation,” she says. The simulation allows individuals to walk in the shoes of someone experiencing poverty. Students were placed in a scenario that required surviving on a limited income for one month – obtaining food, shelter and other basic needs while encountering a range of obstacles and challenges. “The students loved it because they were really contemplating and thinking about what decisions they would have to make if they were in that situation,” says Deligianis.

Photograph by Eugene Uhuad

It’s that kind of interactive experience that Lam and her classmates, Qaasim Mian and Susie Youn, are after. But they want to take it one step further, giving students a first-hand experience of what it’s like to work on the front lines at some of these social organizations. “The idea is to be able to leave the classroom and go out into the community and visit some of these places where they’re actually doing the work,” says Lam. “The first-hand experience will depend on the place and circumstances,” she adds, noting that at the Boyle McCauley Health Centre, students might have a more observational role but at a place like Edmonton’s Food Bank, students could participate in putting a hamper together.

There are many benefits to this kind of hands-on approach. “I think students benefit in that it builds a sense of community and it builds a sense of wanting to help within their community as opposed to just hearing about it,” says Deligianis, who notes that the program is still in its early stages. “Once it gets roots, I think it will be great in teaching kids a lot about what they can do within their community to make it better and to support people.”

At the end of the year, students will have the chance to do a wrap-up project in which they come up with their own poverty solutions and pitch their ideas to local Edmonton groups. “The idea is to have the kids come up with a project on their own or an idea so they can actually integrate what they’ve learned in the classroom – like the social justice or social advocacy piece – and combine it with the leadership skills that they’re learning,” says Lam. “So, for example, come up with a project and maybe present it to the Edmonton Youth Council as an idea of how they can make a difference in terms of tackling poverty in Edmonton.”

Lam and her classmates believe it’s never too early to teach students about social advocacy. “We don’t think there’s an age that’s too young for this, and especially youth, they’re just an open, accepting group and they learn so fast. They absorb so much information that’s presented to them and they can process it and I think that’s a very ideal time to learn.”

She believes earlier education about community service leadership would have benefited her greatly in terms of her own path. “Doing it earlier means you have more practice at it and being more comfortable about it,” she says. “A lot of us are really inexperienced in the concept of what being a leader is in the community and being able to have discussions in a very civil and very respectful manner.”

Rather than simply talking about leadership, she wants youth to be able to try their own hands at it and experiment with different ways of approaching topics and to be able to develop real leadership skills. And she has high hopes that CommunityConnect will be able to assist the students at McKernan in doing just that.

Already the trio has plans to expand the program in the future. “Once we work out the kinks with this program, once we have a set format and evaluation of the program, the hope is to actually expand it to other groups and down the road to do a couple more topics beyond poverty,” says Lam.

Young Leaders

The three co-founders of CommunityConnect bring impressive resumés to the project.

Samantha Lam is in her last year of medical school at the University of Alberta and strongly believes in enabling youth to become the drivers of positive change. She has been actively involved in student leadership and politics and community service throughout university. She was instrumental in leading the MusicBox Children’s Charity, a program to provide free musical opportunities to elementary students. She has also served as a director for the Campus Food Bank Board and president of the Medical Student Association.

Susie Youn is in her fourth year of medical school at the U of A and has been involved in teaching, volunteering, and community engagement throughout university. In medical school, she developed an interest in vulnerable populations in Edmonton, including inner city populations as well as immigrants and refugees. Besides working at both a local and national level with other medical students to raise awareness of these issues, she also collaborated with community organizations in Edmonton to create an elective course for medical students about advocacy.

Qaasim Mian is a third year medical student at the U of A who also recently completed his MBA. He is passionate about youth engagement and education, having worked on a wide variety of programs from summer camps to coaching basketball and tutoring. Over the past few years, he has worked to raise funds for Little Warriors, a local charity focused on helping victims of sexual abuse.

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