During reading week, the Center for Student Engagement (CSE) offered their Alternative Reading Week (ARW) program, an exciting opportunity for students to tackle community challenges in the Region of Peel. The Medium sat down with Michelle Atkinson, CSE’s Community Engagement Coordinator at UTM, to discuss what ARW is, its origin, and the events it includes.

Atkinson begins by explaining that ARW is “a tri-campus opportunity where students from UTM, UTSC, and St. George participate in a three-day program over Reading Week.” ARW ran from February 19th to February 21st this year and was “an opportunity for students to use their reading week to contribute to their community”.

ARW was launched in 2010 when The Learning Enrichment Foundation—a community organization UTM was working with—provided a grant to the university to participate in this type of programming. As Atkinson details, “it was really interesting for the university to participate in this type of co-curricular programming for the learning of our students, [and] so [the university] absorbed the program from there and it [has] grown every year.”

Activities that occur at ARW vary. While some opportunities are located onsite at the community organization, most occur on campus at UTM. Students receive the chance to “create something that meets a challenge of the community organization and

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some of the work on their behalf.” Essentially, students are tasked with “coming up with innovative solutions for complex community problems.”

Community organizations that students worked alongside this year included: City of Mississauga (South Common Community Centre), The DAM Youth Drop-in Centre, Caledon-Dufferin Victim Services, Eden Food for Change, Halton-Peel Community Aphasia Programs, Max’s Big Ride, Let’s Get Together, Peel HIV/AIDS Network, Safe City Mississauga, and St. Rose of Lima School.

One of the numerous and diverse ARW projects entailed creating an aphasia advocacy and awareness video for Halton-Peel Community Aphasia Programs while another involved formulating a marketing plan for Eden Food for Change’s Fresh Produce Box program.

For Caledon Dufferin Victim Services, students were asked to research frauds which target older adults and brainstorm ideas to educate the older adult population on fraud prevention strategies.

For the duration of the program, some students worked directly with the organization while others worked alongside project leaders who have been preparing for ARW since November. Project leaders “convey[ed] the community organization’s message as they [had] an idea of what the project is going to be;” however, “once students came, [the participating students were free] to take the project in different directions based on their experience, their interest areas, and [the] different things they want to do for that partner.”

To be eligible for ARW, students were required to attend a mandatory training. Training sessions were scheduled during the weeks leading up to ARW. In order to accommodate for the recent harsh weather, the training session was also offered the morning of the first day of ARW, so “a student could wake up the morning of ARW, show up to the training, and then be able to participate.”

In addition to this, students engaged with aging populations for Peel HIV/AIDS Network, prepared a day for grade 6-8 students in STEM areas for St. Rose of Lima School, and developed 60-90 second vlogs targeted towards educating parents on their children’s schooling for Let’s Get Together among many other activities.

Atkinson remarks that this year, there has been “room for over a hundred students to participate and that [they have] work[ed] with 10 great community organizations on 15 different well-thought-out projects.” One of the new and primary areas of focus has been “how students can, by participating [in ARW], not only see what they’ve accomplished through their participation but also the larger impact on the community.” Students will be brought together at the beginning of the program, separate and work on their different objects, and then reconvene at the end to reflect on “the larger impact that the whole group of students have made through this program.”