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Turning graduate student knowledge into community good

The PhD-Community Initiative program wraps up with students and local organizations once again benefitting from this unique partnership.

PhD students cross the stage at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts.
While this year's PhD-Community Initiative participants couldn't take part in a public capstone event due to COVID-19 restrictions, the student teams have instead posted online videos of their presentations.

Each year, thousands of talented and ambitious students attend Queen’s to begin or continue their studies at the university.

As they build both academic knowledge and practical skills, these students seek out different ways to give back to the community through clubs, volunteerism, and other charitable pursuits.

Likewise, many not-for-profits and government organizations in Kingston are eager to tap into the knowledge and experiences these students bring, and want to help them develop experiential skills and connections to the community.

It is a win-win relationship that is best exemplified in the annual School of Graduate Studies’ PhD-Community Initiative. This program pairs multidisciplinary teams of graduate students with a mentor, usually a retired faculty member, and local not-for-profits and government organizations to help find solutions to local problems and challenges.

This year’s edition of the program concluded recently, albeit in a different way than in past years. To wind down the PhD-Community Initiative, students typically participate in a public capstone event where they present their findings. Due to the restrictions placed on gatherings this year, the student teams have instead posted online videos of their presentations. For similar reasons, their projects shifted to incorporate more remote work to ensure everyone’s safety while allowing the important research to continue.

“This initiative is one of our flagship programs, and the capstone is a wonderful opportunity for the students and the Kingston community to come together and discuss solutions to local problems in the local context,” said Fahim Quadir, Vice-Provost and Dean of the School of Graduate Studies. “I am always impressed with what our students and the community can do through this program, and this year is no different despite the unusual circumstances.”

Supporting the community

This year’s teams helped the Cataraqui Conservation Foundation identify ways to attract donors who could help preserve Kingston’s conservation areas, provided the City of Kingston with a greater understanding of its doctor shortage, examined how the Kingston Arts Council could define the value of the arts in Kingston, assisted Kingston Community Housing in understanding the needs of those on its waitlist, and aided the Kingston Museum of Healthcare in understanding how to strengthen its member engagement.

“I joined the PhD-Community Initiative because, as a second year PhD student, I was hoping to gain experience in quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis and learn from members of my team,” said Hannah Ascough, a PhD candidate in Global Development Studies who was part of the Museum of Health Care team. “The Initiative has fostered a richer, more connected PhD community at Queen’s, and merged research with practical, community-based social action. The PhD-Community Initiative has proven to be one of my most treasured experiences in graduate school.”

The feedback from clients was likewise glowing.

“The City of Kingston is grateful for the high quality and meaningful work carried out by our PhD-Community Initiative team,” says Craig Desjardins, the city’s director of strategy, innovation, and partnerships. “A better understanding of the family physicians in our community is a critical component as we make our case to the provincial government for improved access to family doctors for our residents.”

In addition to supporting the community, making valuable connections, and learning new skills, the students participating in the PhD-Community Initiative also complete several workshops designed to enhance their abilities and improve their project outcomes.

The final presentation videos are available on the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies YouTube channel.