Welcoming through Volunteering: Reflections on a Selkirk College Volunteer Class


by Tyler Ballam

[This article was first printed in the Fall 2016 issue of TEAL News.]

Tell me and I forget

Teach me and I remember

Involve me and I learn

–Benjamin Franklin

I am sure most of us are familiar with the quote above and can agree with the message conveyed. However, as educators, we quite often are able to address the first two lines but have difficulty actualizing the last. The ideas of experiential and transformative learning have seriously gathered steam in the post-secondary world and the concepts of community involvement and volunteerism are (finally) taken quite seriously. Many institutions have begun their own initiatives created, in part, by the students themselves demanding more “real-world” experiences which can help them prepare for life after college or university. As with most things in the world of academia, English as an additional language (EAL) professionals have traditionally been ahead of the curve. I would like to share a story about how my colleagues at a small rural college assisted a group of post-secondary gerontology diploma students from India to adjust to life in Canada through volunteering. I hope that this simple story may provide some ideas to help other institutions develop similar programs to welcome newcomers to Canada while at the same time providing them with opportunities to further develop their skills in a new country.

Firstly, some context is needed. The Selkirk College International department has been running a volunteer class for over 15 years. Throughout the years, our students have been put in various places throughout the West Kootenay Region. These places range from senior-care homes, hotels, bookstores, elementary schools, hospitals, restaurants, and cafes. The concepts behind this class are threefold: provide the students with an experience where they can meet members of the community, gain an opportunity to practise English in a workplace setting, and develop the soft skills needed for future employment.

In May of 2014, we had the opportunity to help a cohort of recently arrived students from India. Although they were not EAL students, the International department was able to bring them into the volunteer program. As nurses in their home country, we soon realized that they had a skill-set already in place, which we had to respect and consider. The choice was made to connect them with senior-care facilities in Nelson and Castlegar. They were to volunteer once a week and their duties were to be explained and defined by the volunteer coordinator at each facility.

Since this course was for credit, assessment requirements were needed to “grade” the students. This was done through weekly journal entries where the students were given a chance to reflect on their experiences. These journal submissions allowed the instructor to see how things were going as well as check on any grammatical hiccups the students may have had. This model of formative assessment was one which met the needs of this particular course while, at the same time, helped to actualize the principles of experiential learning since reflective observation is a key component to Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle.

Before delving into the triumphs of this class, however, some of the challenges must be mentioned. A long list of logistical considerations was needed prior to sending the students to their placements. Firstly, students had to figure out the bus schedules that allowed them to arrive and leave on time. Buses in rural B.C. do not run as frequently as they do in South Asia (or in Vancouver for that matter), so that challenge proved to be the first test. Secondly, the instructor responsible for the class had to set up the initial meetings with the volunteer coordinators in order to clarify the expectations of each institution. As can be expected, this took up some additional time outside of classroom time. Thirdly, since many of these students would be volunteering with those in need of care, RCMP criminal background checks were required. Finally, there was the off-chance that the students themselves would not show up to volunteer and therefore tarnish any relationships the college had with those institutions. Thankfully, the vast majority of the students showed up, flourished, and built stronger relationships between our institutions.

It became evident quite early on that the students were professional, motivated, and engaged. What had happened was that they were in an environment which respected their professional backgrounds and made them feel more welcome in their new communities. Through this experience, the three parties involved (the students, the college, and the senior-care facility) all managed to learn from one another, and it helped to pave the way for future endeavours. One of these future endeavours included the students themselves being willing to continue to volunteer even though the class had finished. They had managed to build up meaningful relationships with the staff and guests of the homes and wished to carry on. Another positive result of this class was that the college’s nursing department created their own volunteer class to be built into the overall post-graduate gerontology diploma program. Through these classes, a template is now in place to help welcome students into the community, respect their backgrounds, and provide them with opportunities to succeed in their studies.

The connections that can be created between students, the college, and the West Kootenay community may have been somewhat easier to facilitate since Selkirk College is in a small, rural area with a low population base. However, I feel that this class concept can be transferable to other colleges and universities in larger areas provided there is the will on the institution’s behalf to help welcome new students (and potential citizens of Canada) to their communities. Although there may be some logistical challenges at first, I have personally seen how the long term benefits of a class of this type have helped the students feel more comfortable in their new surroundings and succeed academically in their courses. My hope is that our story can stimulate more discussions on how we can help involve students in learning. Thank you.


Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Biographical Information

From the Fall 2016 issue of the BC TEAL newsletter:  Tyler Ballam started his teaching career in Seoul, South Korea in 2002. He has taught EAP in Kangnam University, EAL in large multinational companies including Samsung Electronics, and TESOL professional development to English teachers in the Kyunnggi-do school district. In 2012, he started teaching at Selkirk College in Castlegar and went on to instruct students from all over the world.


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Original reference information:

Ballam, T. (2016, Fall). Welcoming through Volunteering: Reflections on a Selkirk College Volunteer Class. TEAL News. Retrieved from https://www.bcteal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/BC-Teal-Newsletter-Fall-2016-Final-2.pdf