Many Canadian post-secondary professionals might think that on-campus tutoring falls into a different category of support than sending students to work with partners in developing countries. But for Jamie Arron and countless students across Canada, these activities are part of a single mission.
Arron serves as Executive Director for Students Offering Support (SOS), a student-powered organization that works to create accessible, holistic, and inspiring learning environments to help students realize their full potential as community leaders, innovators, and thought leaders. Started at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2004, SOS began as a registered student club that offered peer tutoring support. But quickly, the group began applying the philosophy of “students helping students” on a global scale, raising funds through its on-campus sessions to support third-party organizations focused on international access to education. Today, SOS is a registered national charity that issues grants and recruits an incredible 1,000+ student volunteers every year.
“We believe, at their core, universities are about advancing education,” says Arron. “While this of course means supporting students right on campus, we also believe it comes with a responsibility to work more broadly towards greater global equity in education. To be truly global citizens, we cannot just focus on recruitment of international students, but must also support the development of strong local educational institutions in partner countries. Working together, universities can be at the forefront of achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goal #4 for Quality Education around the world.”
This is a message that Arron looks forward to sharing when he attends the upcoming Reaching Across Borders, Building a Better World conference, which is slated to take place in Montreal this November 5-7. The conference will gather experts from across Canada and around the globe to share inspiring stories and to usher in a new era of internationalization at Canada’s colleges and universities.
When asked about the criticism that is sometimes directed toward student-led development work, often under the pejorative term “voluntourism,” Arron notes that the quality of a collaborative exchange is only as good as the knowledge and attitudes that participants bring to it. “That’s why SOS has all of its volunteers participate in a structured, rigorous training process,” says Arron. “Simply put, we’re not going to send someone into a community unless we’re satisfied that they have a sound understanding of the political and educational realities of that community and the kind of attitude that is conducive to true reciprocity.” Arron adds that when volunteers return, they are supported through an equally structured process of reflection and assessed for learning outcomes.
But what of the general trends and attitudes that Canada brings to global development work? With nationalism and isolationism emerging around the Western world, and with governments focusing more on initiatives driven by innovation and national economic self-interest, do people still care about global development work the way they might have in previous decades?
“That’s an interesting question, and one that’s worth asking,” says Arron. “For starters, I’d say that year-to-year, SOS has no trouble recruiting students for our initiatives. We’re talking 1,000 students, year-in-year-out, whom we deploy for our programs, and there’s no sign of that letting up. But in terms of the attitudes brought to this work, yes, I think there’s been a bit of a shift. Young people now are very passionate about making a difference in the world, but where past cohorts might’ve had a more abstract enthusiasm for helping people, young people now are much more results-oriented. They want to know they’ll get maximum impact from the effort they put into this kind of work. I, for one, think that’s a great thing if you’re an organization that knows how to harness it.”