Ensuring Community Engaged Learning benefits everyone

Headshot of Sandra SmeltzerBy Anna Twohey

May 2022

Associate Professor Sandra Smeltzer is passionate about creating mutually beneficial collaborations between students and community partners.

FIMS Associate Professor Sandra Smeltzer has played a role in many research projects and initiatives in her time at Western, but the one thing that connects them all is her desire to do work that makes a positive difference in people’s lives.

Smeltzer is currently working on a couple of projects that fit the bill. She is a co-investigator on a team looking at the role that a creative campus plays in learning, and she is also part of an interdisciplinary group who recently submitted a successful proposal to build a Community Engaged Learning Hub at 450 Talbot Street, a building in downtown London purchased by Western last year.

It’s early days for the creative campus initiative, as data collection is only recently underway. Building on existing research in applied theatre and performance, and its impact on learning, Smeltzer and colleague Professor Kim Solga launched a campus survey in March to ask students, faculty, and staff about their attitudes towards creativity and the arts, both on and off campus.

A primary area of research for Smeltzer concerns community engaged learning (CEL), a pedagogical approach for which students engage in a project, developed collaboratively with a community partner, that has mutually beneficial outcomes. While public consciousness of CEL has grown more recently, Smeltzer has facilitated it for years.

Key Takeaway

Opening up critical conversations about CEL more broadly can have tremendous benefits for students, organizations, and instructors.

Smeltzer explains that today there is a great push and demand for increased experiential learning across higher education in Canada and around the world. She sees tremendous benefits in CEL, but only if the relationship between students and community partners is reciprocal, respectful, and recognizes the time, energy and the labour of community partners.

“I believe that if you marry theory, and practice in a thoughtful, critical, ethical manner, with continuous mentorship, with in-depth, authentic reflection exercises, and real support from faculty members, then community engaged learning can be incredibly beneficial to students and community partners alike,” she says.

Smeltzer has been sending students to work alongside local non-profit and community-based organizations for years as part of her Media and the Public Interest Practicum course. At times she has found ways for students to do these placements in other countries, though the ethics and challenges that arise from these opportunities - risk management, mental health and logistical issues - have led Smeltzer to want to examine CEL more critically.

“That coalesced into me wanting to do more research about community engaged learning and about the benefits and drawbacks of not just international, but domestic local forms of placements and how I could add both the research side, pedagogical side and the policy side,” she says.

While keeping the student experience in mind, Smeltzer’s goal is to advance more ethically sound, reciprocal, respectful relationships between students, the university, and community partners.

“I want my research to have a positive impact in the world. I enjoy this work and I do it with the hope it will make a difference in my communities, both here and abroad.” - Sandra Smeltzer

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have generated a more intense need from some community partners who are facing financial struggles, as well as employee/volunteer illness, burnout, and mental and healthcare needs. Smeltzer explains that the fallout from the pandemic has increased the importance of her research and has required thoughtful reflection and broad, open conversations about CEL in the lives of students at Western and at other institutions.

“One of the reasons I became interested in this area was the desire to help support the next group of young people coming out of our institution into as they transition into their lives. I want them to care about the world around them, I want them to feel that they have both rights and responsibilities as they move through their lives,” she says.

“I look at every student as that's somebody’s child and think, what can I do to help them become the best version of themselves? How can I help them pursue the things they are interested in? How can I support them to lead the life and live the life that they want to lead? That's a really privileged position for me to be in and I don't take it lightly.”

Smeltzer holds an undergraduate degree in anthropology, development, and art history. She has a master's degree in Anthropology and Cultural Studies and a PhD in Political Economy of Communication. Her earlier research in Southeast Asia and East Africa examined how citizens use communications technologies to work collaboratively to advance democratic ideals like gender, environmental, and democratic rights in their respective nations. This work has evolved into her current research naturally over time.

With the nascent Community Engaged Learning Hub in downtown London recently officially announced by Western, opportunities to take CEL and CEL research to the next level will surely be forthcoming.


This profile is part of a series written by graduate students in MMJC 9604 Professional Writing, during the Winter 2022 term. Profiles have been edited by FIMS Communications staff for clarity.