By Christopher Thrall –
Amy Wilhelm, in her final year of a Global and Development Studies Bachelor of Arts degree, is working in Edmonton at the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association. She spends most of her time on the phone, trying to determine whether a Welcoming and Inclusive Communities Project would be of interest to small communities of 2500 or fewer people.
“In trying to build infrastructure and focus on their priorities, many of the communities I contact don’t always have the time to deal with making residents and newcomers feel welcome,” explains Wilhelm. “It’s important for them to know what resources are available to help them.” The project provides toolkits and opportunities to eliminate racism and discrimination.
“Whenever I thought about global and development studies, I thought to work overseas,” she says. “I actually want to work locally and do things that are meaningful in my own community.”
Ellis Agbenyega, a graduate of the same Bachelor program, found a placement with the City of Camrose. Originally asked to evaluate the community’s surveillance policy, he has since accepted five other projects that the administration must develop in order to present them to city council.
“I have specific municipal administration skills,” says the Toronto native, “and I am developing them further.” He finds the administration welcoming to him, both personally and as a student with a job to do. “Folks are very helpful – the good part of being in a small community is that you get to know a lot of folks. You’re exposed to a lot of stuff, and you get a chance to get hands-on.”
Jeremy Smith feels the same way. Entering his fourth year of political studies in September, he is spending the summer in the Smoky Lake county office in a comprehensive bylaw review. He might rewrite, amalgamate or recommend elimination of any of the bylaws he discovers.
“It’s a big clean up because it hasn’t been done for 50 years,” he laughs. “After I’m done, I will produce a policy on how to do more consistent bylaw reviews. Next time they do this, it will take far less effort!” The contrast Smith has found between a larger city centre and the 2200-resident county is the constraint on resources: everyone wears two hats, and you don’t have entire departments devoted to policy development.
From their common experience in policy development and evaluation, the three students will present their conclusions on rural sustainability as part of the academic requirements of the internship. “We are asked to draw a bridge between what we do every day in our jobs and the conditions within the rural community,” Smith explains. “We link them to our academic knowledge in municipal engagement or policy development.”
Rural and agricultural-based communities play important economic and social roles, but they face huge challenges with limited capacity – or budget – to research problems, engage citizens, and make key decisions.
In order to assist communities in addressing these issues and to create meaningful rural-based undergraduate student experiences, the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus-based Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities and Learning and Beyond office have partnered to establish the Rural Capacity Intern Program. This summer, its second phase provided internship opportunities for a dozen students within communities around Alberta.
The program introduces interns to a community, where they are exposed to multiple aspects of rural municipal planning, administration, and program development relating their area of study or interest. Interns also work under the guidance of Augustana faculty members in developing and researching community-based projects that support rural capacity and sustainability issues.
The resulting insights into rural sustainability questions will be valuable for both communities and the students. The communities have already come to value the energetic students, and the students themselves have been very happy with the support they receive in the program.
“The AUMA has very limited resources,” says Wilhelm, “so to have a student come in to help out for the summer is very welcome.” The Learning and Beyond office on Augustana Campus worked with her to find a placement that suited her interests: she worked in program delivery, but wanted to work on programs at a higher level. The very professional environment is new to her, and it has been an excellent opportunity.
“The Learning and Beyond Office was very helpful every step of the way,” said Agbenyega. “I’m in a place where I am doing what I want to do as a career.”
“We come in and can do things that other people don’t have time for,” said Smith. “The bylaw review hasn’t been done in many, many decades, but they are also ecstatic to see a young guy running around the office who also enjoys talking about the same things a Chief Administration Officer does.” Originally from Cold Lake, Smith feels comfortable in smaller communities. After more municipal experience, he plans to try his hand at questions of small city development.
“It’s a great way for students to go into work areas or careers that interest us,” says Smith. “We are learning through work experience and academia at the same time.”