In 2000, renowned bee biologist Dr. Mark Winston pitched Simon Fraser University's (SFU) leadership a radical new program: take no more than 20 undergrads, immerse them in a full-time, semester-long program focused on a topic of importance to society as a whole, and put them in touch with their own capacity as community leaders. Somewhat remarkably, given the entrenched traditionalism of most universities, the program was launched in 2002, and about 800 students have since completed the Semester in Dialogue.
What do bees and engagement have in common? A great deal, says Dr. Winston, the author of Bee Time, Lessons from the Hive, a bestseller that recently won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction. "Bees are remarkable in their ability to communicate, assessing their community's needs through intense interactions with each other.
"They are masters of the focused, open, multi-dimensional communication we call dialogue. If we are to identify and implement solutions to the complex problems that challenge the future survival of the human species, dialogue – listening to each other without judgment or agenda – is the essential first step."
One of the cornerstones of the Semester in Dialogue program is the generosity of the hundreds of thought leaders who have spent time with the students of the semester, including such luminaries as Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, anthropologist-ethnographer and best-selling author Wade Davis, and celebrated artist and blockbuster novelist Douglas Coupland. All agree in advance to the semester's unique format: no lecturing. Instead, students ask questions and invite the visiting leader to ask questions of them – egalitarian, interactive conversations.
"We waste a lot of potential at universities by keeping students in classrooms rather than having them engage in community with purpose."
- Dr. Mark Winston
recently won the Governor-General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction
"This approach helps students understand the issues we study at a deeper level, but it also opens their minds to the idea that they really aren't much different than the people who are changing the world today," says Dr. Winston. "It helps them build networks and understand their own immense capacity."
Janet Webber was in the fall 2005 Semester in Dialogue and is now the program director of SFU's Public Square, which connects the university to the community through a series of public events and programming. (One of the most recent was a sold-out video appearance by whistleblower Edward Snowden.) She describes the dialogue program as transformative, and credits it with her steep and successful career trajectory.
Semester in Dialogue student Megan Branson discovered an alignment of her passion for beautiful indoor greenery, the environment and social justice, and went on to found the Olla Urban Flower Project. The company sources from fair trade farms and even Vancouver backyards, while providing training and employment for disadvantaged residents of the Downtown Eastside. Other students have launched community zero-waste programs and a thriving bicycle-powered delivery service.
Now in its fourth year, the Semester in Dialogue's CityStudio was launched in partnership with the City of Vancouver to allow students to design and participate in city-building projects that advance the municipal government's greenest city goals.
"We waste a lot of potential at universities by keeping students in classrooms rather than having them engage in community with purpose," says Dr. Winston. "University should teach information and a career, but at its best, it goes beyond – by engaging students in hands-on projects that make a meaningful difference, we allow them to explore who they want to be in the world and what they want to contribute."
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