Reading week? Let the life lessons begin

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February 13, 2014 - by Corey Allen with files from Patty Wellborn

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Benson Wong is one of 400 UBC students leading community projects this Reading Week. Photo: Martin Dee

Whether building cat condos or creating digital totem poles, hundreds of UBC students will spend Reading Break out in the community

For many university students each year, Reading Week is a welcome interlude.

It’s a time to catch up on lecture notes or assignments, to see old friends, or to simply veg out at home. Some opt for ski trips to Whistler and others head south to vacation hot spots like Mexico, to get away from it all.

But for more than 400 UBC students, this year’s Reading Week – running Feb. 17-21 – is a chance to get involved in community initiatives, collaborating with both the young and the old, and in some cases, the four-legged.

Here’s a snapshot of what students will be up to over the break.

Generations mingle

Fifteen students, paired with a group of seniors, will tackle the issue of senior isolation with a health and wellness fair at the UBC Learning Exchange, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Student Saki Serizawa works with Teresa Wong at the UBC Learning Exchange in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside

Student Saki Serizawa works with Teresa Wong at the UBC Learning Exchange in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Photo: Martin Dee

“I have been meeting such amazing people preparing for our project– it’s been a really enriching learning experience so far,” says Saki Serizawa, a third-year Faculty of Land and Food Systems student who says she got involved out a desire to try something new. “I’m looking forward to talking to seniors about the importance of mental well being.”

The Feb. 19 fair will include activities like yoga, beading, Mahjong and calligraphy. In addition to helping run the fair, students will collect feedback from the seniors by holding focus groups on what activities the seniors liked best.

“It’s a more interesting way for seniors to give input on our program offerings,” said Learning Exchange director Kathleen Leahy. “It’s also a fun way for seniors to connect with a younger generation and for the students to learn from them in an immersive experience. This is both a UBC space and a community space, so everyone has ownership of what happens here.”

Inspiring youngsters

Over the span of three days at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, 30 students from UBC and 11 students from the University of Guelph will help give lessons on Aboriginal history, art and culture, including making digital totem poles.

Benson Wong, a fourth-year biology student, is back for his second year as student leader. He revels in the chance to work with the young students.

“I get to spend a few days with a group of awesome kids while learning how to create a short term project with a community partner,” says Wong. “It’s a win-win situation.”

According to Susan Grossman, the director of the Centre for Community Engaged Learning, the benefits of students working inside the Vancouver public school system couldn’t be clearer.

“The feedback we get from school principals and teachers has consistently been that UBC students bring an energy to their classrooms that renews their students interest,” she says. “Even though it’s a short period of time, the contribution made by these university students is impactful.”

The ongoing success of UBC’s Reading Week, now in its 13th year, stems from students desire for meaningful experiences, says Grossman.

“In our experience, students are looking for more ways to engage,” she says. “They’re looking for professional skills, they want to meet more people. There’s a real recognition of the role they have in the community and their desire to be a part of it.”

Cat condos

New condos in Kelowna are being built over Reading Week, with help from some UBC Okanagan students, but not ones you might think. 

Nishat Tasnim, a third-year biology student from Bangladesh, is one of many students involved in the Community Service Learning Program that will see her volunteer at Kelowna’s SPCA during the break—helping to build plywood climbing condos for the shelter’s adoptable cats. The idea is that each cat that is adopted will leave with its own, handmade, kitty cat condo.

“I was thrilled when I was asked to participate at the SPCA. I’ve missed having pets around since coming to university,” says Tasnim. “I have always wanted to volunteer at the SPCA but could not fit it into my schedule. We’ve had 11 cats at one point in our house. It was a bit crazy, but we loved our pets.”

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