Reflections on Partnership

Christine Black & Rachel Guitman, McMaster Student Partners

In this blog post we hope to outline our experiences of partnership and the rationale behind this pilot project. We are both student partners at the MacPherson Institute and we created the idea for this online, interactive platform where partnership projects could be facilitated and supported. This project was inspired by the research we collected over the past two years, and we are open to receiving content and ideas from others.

How We Became Student Partners

R: I joined the research team for the Summer Institute follow-up study in September 2016, as I was starting my second year of my undergraduate degree. At the time, I thought the MacPherson Institute’s work in student partnership and SoTL sounded interesting, but I don’t think I had yet grasped the full meaning of that work. For me, this speaks to an important piece of student partnership: it is a practice, and its core meaning and impact comes from practice (rather than theory). I entered the role of student scholar with a lack of confidence in my own skills and competence. I felt like I needed guidance from my faculty partner, both because I still thought of student-faculty relations in terms of the traditional power dynamic, and because I was not sure I had something particularly valuable to bring to the table. As the relationship developed, however, I found the power structure constantly being re-negotiated and adjusted between us. It was great to work with a faculty partner who was sensitive to my and Christine’s feelings in the project, stepping in when needed and stepping away when we could take on a leadership role. Reflecting back on the project now, I know that I’ve developed greatly as a person and a scholar — I see the value of my contributions more clearly and feel much more confident. It has also been a great learning experience of better understanding what academia is like, and what faculty members experience. Navigating the student-faculty power structure and growing personally in the process is thus one of my favourite aspects of partnership, even though it can be difficult at first. I also love that when we engage in student-faculty partnership, we actively contribute to transforming an institutional structure that often disempowers students and stifles student-staff communication. Lastly, I find that in the process of partnership, I forged meaningful relationships with both my faculty and student partner.

C: When I joined the team in 2015, I helped plan the original Summer Institute, as well as for the research project. When we began discussing the Summer Institute, I was astounded at how inclusive and supportive my new team members were. I had heard of students as partners before, but I didn’t realize how it would look in practice. I felt like my voice and opinions mattered, despite not having as much background knowledge about conferences or partnership. I decided to join the MacPherson Institute because I was interested in education, and wanted to learn more about higher education and student engagement. This expectation was more than met through my experience of partnership, as well as attending various conferences and workshops. Over the past few years, I have gained so much more confidence in myself and in my abilities to effect change. Being a student partner at the MacPherson Institute has let me experience so many opportunities to grow and explore my skill sets. I learned how to conduct focus groups, analyze data, and present a paper in an engaging and informative way. Sometimes I have felt out of my depth and confused, especially at first when I was unsure about the terminology and the practice of partnership itself. I was skeptical of partnership, and whether my voice would actually be heard. However, my faculty partners have always been there to offer guidance and support when I needed it. I’ve found a network of supportive and engaging people through partnership, that can help me as I navigate my role as a student partner.

After the SI

C: Over the past two years, we have conducted focus groups and follow up interviews to assess and understand how the SI supports partnership. Some of our results focused more broadly on partnership itself, while some aspects were specific to the experiences in the SI. One key aspect raised by participants was a sense of community. People noted that they felt an increased sense of community and understanding after attending the SI. Knowing that there were others out there, also figuring out their own partnership projects, made some participants feel like they had a support system. However, in our follow up interviews, participants noted that this feeling seemed to dissipate after leaving the SI and the community there. After our first research initiative into the effects of the SI, some brought up the international aspect of the institute as a beneficial part of their experience. They observed similarities and differences in these institutional contexts, and after hearing about others’ experiences, participants were able to expand their perspectives on partnership. Some even suggested that in future iterations of the SI, we include more networking time so for participants to form more robust connections and find out more about different ways of thinking.

R: Based on the findings of our research last year, we have decided to pilot an interactive platform for those interested in student partnership. This platform will include blog posts (like this one!), addressing central issues that have emerged from our data, such as resource allocation, inclusivity, sustainability of partnership, or power structures. This platform will be more informal, accessible, and interactive than published articles about the SI. The goal of this interactive space is to show us all we are not alone in our partnership challenges. Through the platform, we will also provide an opportunity to brainstorm new solutions with multiple, mutually beneficial perspectives. We will be organizing events such as webinars or Twitter discussions to have informal meetings about the projects for those who wish to discuss them. These facilitated discussions will function as a supportive community environment so we can encourage and learn from each other throughout our projects. Some research participants mentioned that they gained useful contacts at the SI, but had yet to use them; hopefully, our platform could aid not just the creation of networks, but also their active usage. We invite you to participate in this endeavour by contributing your ideas, thoughts, and anything else you would like to share! We can be contacted via our email address, mi_sap@mcmaster.ca, and Twitter account, @McMaster_MI_SaP. Don’t be afraid to reach out — we welcome any contributions!

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