May 14, 2021
By Anita Muchalla Yeulet

How my ‘academic freedom’ assignment inspired students to create Spare a Pair charity

Jody Vaughan of Jody Vaughan Infinity ImagesVeronique Gauthier, left, and Danika Serafin, right, “are proof of the positive impacts we can have as educators,” says nursing faculty member Anita Muchalla Yeulet, centre. As part of a class assignment, Veronique and Danika spoke with members of the marginalized population in Prince George, British Columbia, about what they needed. This ultimately led to the creation of the Spare a Pair charity.

It was very early in my introduction to teaching the didactic component of a course when I first heard about academic freedom. I realize now that I did not understand the concept of academic freedom, nor did I consider the impact it would have on my professional development, let alone student learning. I wanted to engage students in learning, and I wanted to be equally engaged in teaching. In the beginning, the task sounded easy enough. I was wrong.

Creating interactive and fun learning activities all while ensuring content delivery is a challenge. I wanted to do more, and hearing chatter among faculty got me thinking.

Does this academic freedom apply to students as well? Do we allow students enough freedom with assignments?

The simple answer is no. Students are often confined to very specific assignment rubrics.

The truth of the matter is that for an instructor, the day-to-day marking of papers, exams, and presentations becomes monotonous. Using very detailed assignment rubrics is convenient for teachers. But I wanted students to get excited about otherwise “dry” content, and I wanted to look forward to marking their assignments.

To engage and to excite

In my experience, it is easier to get students excited about learning psychomotor skills versus theory content. Harnessing the same level of excitement for theoretical concepts is challenging. I set out on a mission to create an assignment that was both engaging and exciting for my students and for me.

The required nursing course I teach aims at helping students understand health disparities, social determinants of health, cultural safety, and social justice within marginalized and Indigenous populations.

I asked myself two questions:

  • How do I get my students excited about the profession of nursing?
  • How do I engage students in understanding the impact of social injustices and the difference they can make in trying to address inequities in the health-care system?

With these questions in mind, I set out to develop an assignment to inspire students and get them involved with the same people they would be caring for as nurses. Students would conduct a needs assessment of any Indigenous community in Canada. Based on the assessment, students would then develop a strategic plan to meet the identified need.

How do I get my students excited about the profession of nursing?

Students would use the nursing process to develop and evaluate their projects. Each group’s project would highlight the social determinants of health, and above all, demonstrate cultural safety.

I believe the assignment that I describe below is an example of academic freedom. I had freedom in developing and implementing the assignment; students had the freedom to choose its direction and content.

Spare a Pair

A group of students led by Danika Serafin and Veronique Gauthier took to the streets of Prince George, British Columbia, and started talking with members of the marginalized population. The conversation began with a cup of soup and a warm drink. Their question was simple: “What do you need?” The response was pointed and very revealing — a pair of socks! This seemingly small request had a profound impact and led to the creation of Spare a Pair.

Spare a Pair is a non-profit charitable organization founded by two nursing students in the College of New Caledonia and University of Northern British Columbia’s Northern Collaborative Baccalaureate Nursing Program. Recently, Spare a Pair became a registered society in the province. With the help of social media, community presentations, and health fairs, Spare a Pair continues to receive donations and recognition for their work throughout the community.

Danika and Veronique were inspired by their class project and moved by the stories of those they met in the process of completing it. Their project quickly evolved into a community-wide initiative.

The organization has collected hundreds of donations to meet the basic needs of the marginalized population living on the streets of Prince George. Donations have included socks, backpacks, feminine hygiene products, oral hygiene products, toques, mittens, and scarves.

Jody Vaughan of Jody Vaughan Infinity ImagesSpare a Pair focuses on simple day-to-day items, such as those pictured above, that most of us take for granted — items that are easily accessible to those who are not marginalized.

Basic needs

The initial needs assessment included simple and pointed questions: “What do you need, and how can we help?”

The answers ultimately all carried the same message: “We need to have our basic needs met.”

The next question students considered was, “What is a basic need?”

It did not take long for the group to realize the requests made were simple day-to-day items taken for granted — items that are easily accessible to those who are not marginalized.

Prince George, B.C.

Prince George is a community in northern British Columbia. Each season brings new challenges: flooding in the spring, bitter cold in the winter, and smoke from forest fires in the summer.

The group conducted needs assessments frequently, using direct and simple questions to determine the changing needs of the community. This method proved to be effective in creating dialogue.

Spare a Pair has become well known among Prince George’s marginalized population and shelters. By reaching out in this manner, Spare a Pair created trusting relationships. In response, members of the community approached the group with requests, suggestions, and recommendations.

Danika and Veronique have an unprecedented passion for helping and wanting to create change.

Spare a Pair has evolved into an initiative that thrives off the notion of people helping people. What the group did not realize in taking on this endeavour is the help they would receive in return.

Lessons learned

Students involved in the project learned empathy and the art of connecting with, and humanizing, a stigmatized population.

What I learned in this process is that the assignment also inspired me as an educator. The lessons learned extended far beyond what I could ever have hoped from an assignment. I realized that my passion for teaching is largely influenced by student engagement, student success, and ah-ha moments.

Danika and Veronique have an unprecedented passion for helping and wanting to create change. Care, compassion, advocacy, and nurturing apply far beyond bedside nursing. Their infectious desire to encourage others to be involved led to my partnership in the organization.

Academic freedom created the Spare a Pair society and facilitated my partnership with Danika and Veronique; they are my colleagues. Danika and Veronique epitomize students who strive to be part of the solution. Through their hard work, we have managed to gain community recognition and community support, and to recruit volunteers who help acquire and distribute items to those in need.

Positive impacts

Danika and Veronique are proof of the positive impacts we can have as educators, given the appropriate forum. They are an inspiration to faculty and students alike. These two students’ interpretation of an assignment is an example of how students can reap the rewards of their efforts. The rewards have been both personal and professional for all involved. Their leadership and willingness to stand up and raise awareness are attributes of exceptional nurses.

I now challenge students to take an assignment beyond what is required. In the end, I realized that I have a role in creating my future colleagues, and that using academic freedom is mutually beneficial.

I challenge faculty to be the catalyst. Encourage, support, and provide students with academic freedom as a means of harnessing their passion for the profession of nursing.

Acknowledgments: The author gives special thanks to Northern Collaborative Baccalaureate Nursing Program students Danika Serafin and Veronique Gauthier.

Anita Muchalla Yeulet, RN, BScN, MN, CCNE, is a member of the nursing faculty of the Northern Collaborative Baccalaureate Nursing Program, College of New Caledonia, Prince George, B.C.

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