SERT at the Office of Social Innovation

In its third iteration, SERT re-situated itself at the Ryerson Office of Social Innovation in 2020-2021.

Student stories from the Degrees of Debt: Considering the impact of debt on engagement and well-being through an arts-informed, student-led inquiry

In the Fall term of 2020, six students from the School of Social Work at Ryerson University were approaching completing their studies and confronted yet another challenge that the COVID-19 pandemic presented them and countless other students. That latest challenge came in the form of suspended in-person field placements as community organizations shifted to emergency, reduced capacity operations and the university put restrictions in place to protect the health and safety of students and community members. Field placements are a social work degree requirement whereby students apply their knowledge and skills from prior and ongoing courses through experiential learning in the field. Students typically find themselves immersed in frontline work in agencies and organizations whose services and outreach align with students’ career and academic goals. At no time before the pandemic had so many students’ first, second, and even third choices of where to complete their field placements been reduced, restricted, or eliminated altogether. Undergraduate and graduate students in social work in their next-to-last term especially found themselves confronting this roadblock and making sense of how they might navigate around it.

At the same time, the pandemic had created some windows of opportunity at the Office of Social Innovation (OSI). With a mandate to create transformative solutions to complex social issues through teaching, learning, programming, and research, as detailed in OSI’s engagement strategy, the OSI understood that COVID-19 was one such complex, emergent crisis that presented tangled, interweaving, and compounding consequences for students. Having offered alternative field placements to two social work students in the Fall 2020 term, and alerted to the fact that more Master’s of Social Work (MSW) and Bachelor’s of Social Work (BSW) students were seeking alternative field placements for Winter 2021, the OSI conceived of a solution that would offer a dynamic experiential learning opportunity by involving students as research assistants in our ongoing investigation into a complex problem we were beginning to understand had deep-felt consequences for students before, during, and certainly beyond COVID-19: student debt in Ontario.

To begin, the OSI hired one of the co-creators of the SERT, Tesni Ellis, to build and lead a research cohort of students who would spend their field placement taking on a piece of the Degrees of Debt project. Previous studies led by two interdisciplinary undergraduate SERT groups were concerned with topics of student engagement, belonging, well-being, persistence, and transition, topics that we knew intersected with our questions about the impact of debt on students’ experiences. SERT’s original founding principles aligned well with the OSI’s approach, so SERT:OSI was born.

A Comic-Timeline of our Work Together

We created a comic of our different drawings to express reflections on our work and process, forming a timeline of our work from January through to April 2021. Our comic is featured in the OSI “Flip the Switch” zine, which is available here.

Our comic includes a collection of drawings we have created as representations and reflections on our work and process, forming a timeline of our work from January through to April.

Results: “Welcome to Funder-Land” by SERT at the Office of Social Innovation

“Welcome to Funder-Land” illustration by Nicole Victorino, BSW, SERT:OSI

As a result of our study, we drew “Funder-Land” as a satirical representation of very real conversations we had with student participants in focus groups in our study about student engagement and student debt, as part of the Degrees of Debt project at the Office of Social Innovation at Ryerson University (REB-2020-480). We invite you to choose your own adventure by clicking around the markers on the theme park map. Each one reveals something about how our participants experience the complex financial aid system in Ontario, specifically the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). 

See the Funder-Land image below (without interactive elements).

Created by Nicole Victorino, through discussions as a SERT:OSI group, the “Welcome to Funder-Land” image is a satirical representation of our focus group results in our study for the Degrees of Debt project about student debt and student engagement.

“For me, it’s been a disruption of what I understand research to be. I now understand different ways to evaluate practice and to enhance voice and social work now. “

KP, graduate student researcher