Interviewer, interview thyself.
At the Innovation Hub, students and staff use empathy-based interviewing to capture a snapshot of the university experience through the eyes of students. Their subjects are varied: international students, commuters, students with accessibility needs, TAs, and others.
Missing from the picture are the photographers themselves—the students capturing these stories.
What has the Innovation Hub meant to the team itself? How has it changed the university experiences of its students and volunteers?
To find answers, I pivoted the lens.
The team members I interviewed spoke of the experiences they had gained, experiences not found in the course calendar: organizing research studies, leading large teams, presenting data to university staff. For some, these experiences were the gateways to their future careers, not only as bullet points on their resumes but also as skills to be relied on when navigating future workplaces. For others, they were testing grounds for finding their niche, chances to differentiate the work that excites them from the work that would, perhaps, be more enticing for a different personality.
These opportunities fulfill a need identified by the Innovation Hub itself in its Future Readiness project: the need for students to explore new experiences, to articulate and gain confidence in their skills, and to reflect on their interests and values. They also reflect calls at the university and provincial level, via the U of T Strategic Mandate Agreement and the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skill Development’s Career Kick-Start Strategy, to provide students with work-integrated learning opportunities.
The experience of career development is the experience of skills acquired and tasks completed, but the student experience encompasses the environment as well—the feel of the university, as it is lived from day to day. Here also, the Innovation Hub identifies areas for improvement. Reviewing the data from its two-year pilot project, it discovered that students have an unmet need to feel supported by and connected to other students, faculty, and staff.
The Innovation Hub members I interviewed spoke of this as well: they saw the team as a place to work collaboratively, rather than independently (as is so often required in their academic courses); they met people with roles and interests they had not even realized existed; and they gained the opportunity to peer behind the curtain of university administration and engage with The University itself.
The team draws its members from an array of students, from undergraduate to graduate, from science to arts. Its methods blend the two traditions: it relies on empathy-based interviewing, inspired by the ethnographic methods used in such disciplines as sociology and anthropology, and also on design thinking, with its varied and tangled roots in design theory, engineering, and business, among others. This blending of disciplines is complemented by a mixing of academic strata: at the Innovation Hub, a first-year undergraduate might sit with an upper year doctoral student, contributing as equals. In this diverse space, with these diverse people, a new cross-disciplinary community emerges.
This community does not limit itself to students, either. Staff volunteers populate many Innovation Hub groups, and the collaboration between students and staff has led the students to rethink their relationship with the university, and their power within it. They now see themselves more as voices in a dialogue—sometimes a frustrated one, but a dialogue nonetheless—and less as passive consumers of a process curated by administration and staff.
This, then, is one sketch of the Innovation Hub pilot: in working to change the student experience at large, it has incidentally changed the student experience for its members. By asking students to work on improving opportunities for co-curricular learning and community engagement, it has involved its students in their own project of learning and connection.
And the journey does not end. As the Innovation Hub looks forward to a new year, it plans to reorganize its volunteer force to include more opportunities for skills development and recognition, and to open a makerspace to provide a physical community that complements and strengthens its existing social community. It also plans to formalize this exercise in self-portraiture, interviewing those who have been involved as staff, students, volunteers, and partners, so it can evolve in a direction that best serves them. Amid the projects and visions it has for the university, it is making space to grow its vision of itself.