Kari Grain

Research Topic

Ethical international engagement and experiential learning

Research Description

My doctoral research examines the role of the university in teaching for social justice and global citizenship. In particular, I am interested in international university service-learning programs, which are gaining popularity as a result of the internationalization of higher learning institutions, and in response to the new demands and impacts of globalization. International service-learning combines course content, volunteer work, and international travel to achieve a pedagogy that is dynamic and steeped in real-world issues. Universities throughout Canada and the United States see service-learning programs as a way to graduate globally-minded students, share expertise and resources with marginalized or underprivileged communities both locally and internationally, and provide students with hands-on, experiential learning that is steeped in diverse lived realities outside of the classroom. While such programs are important in their capacity to serve community needs, address poverty, teach students about inequality, and promote cross-cultural understanding, they can also, unfortunately, be harmful – economically, socially, emotionally – to the very communities they are trying to help. For example, when projects are undertaken without full collaboration and leadership from the host community, they may unintentionally worsen a situation or disturb or destroy a complex web of relationships.

Of equally troubling consequence, such programs – if they are not designed and facilitated with careful attention to complexity, plurality, and critical reflexivity – may reify in students ethnocentrism, paternalism, salvationism, and reproduce other perceptions that achieve not a sense of critical global citizenship, but a sense of superiority or elitism. My master’s research with volunteer teachers in Rwanda revealed that a small percentage of volunteers had become more entrenched in their own assumptions and stereotypes as a result of their time abroad. For this reason and others, I see my research as vital to the establishment of an increasingly ethical and informed approach to international engagement among universities and institutions– not only to achieve results that developing communities aim for, but also to bolster a type of university education that promotes social justice and social cohesion as opposed to elitism or inequality.

What aspect of your graduate program do you enjoy the most or are looking forward to with the greatest curiosity?

I have been adding depth and breadth to my understanding of service-learning and community engagement through my GRA role in the Centre for Community Engaged Learning (CCEL). Working on and with service-learning programs and courses (such as Environmental Sciences 400) has given context to the literature I’ve been reading. And it helps that the CCEL staff are some of the most thoughtful and passionate people I’ve worked with.

In terms of ideas, embodied learning has emerged as a new area of research for me, and I’m looking forward to the (significant) challenge of weaving together post-colonial and critical theory with notions of the body’s role in experiential education, as well as Rumi’s ideas about the transience of the human experience. I’m fascinated by the distinction between the political and the existential in education, and by the possibilities for reimagining higher education.

What was the best surprise about UBC or life in Vancouver?

The best surprise has been how I've fallen in love with cycling. I've never lived in a city that makes it so easy and rejuvenating to get around on two wheels. 

Why did you decide to study at UBC?

In addition to UBC's reputation as a global hub for service-learning and experiential education, I was drawn to UBC for the quality of life it offers. In the year that I've been here, I have spent an incredible amount of time on my bicycle, in public parks, and at interesting cultural events, and this has allowed me to work toward a PhD while also finding balance.

What is it specifically, that your program offers, that attracted you?

Our department has so many faculty who are engaged in service-learning, higher education, and global education, and I was excited at the prospect of learning from and working with them.


Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

My experiential education has always given meaning, intensity, and far-reaching roots to my formal education. Whether through dialogue with a Rwandan genocide survivor, or an introspective hike in an old-growth forest, I have learned that "education" - especially the kind that transforms us – happens when we are present in our flesh, our environment, and our relationships. This realization motivated me to pursue a PhD so that I could explore these ideas further.

What do you see as your biggest challenge(s) in your future career?

Finding a career that is simultaneously research-oriented, joyful, and rooted in social justice ideals.

How do you feel your program is preparing you for those challenges?

Role models surround me in my program, in the form of professors, fellow students, and community practitioners, all of whom are change-makers and educators on a daily basis; they show me each in their unique ways how we can do this work ethically and rigorously.

What aspects of your life or career before now have best prepared you for your UBC graduate program?

I had an incredible master’s supervisor at UCalgary, Dr. Darren Lund, who took me under his wing at a pivotal time when I very much needed somebody to believe in me. His mentorship and example taught me to approach academia with humour, humbleness, and a priority on our relationships with family and loved ones. In addition to his guidance and encouragement, my experiences of living, volunteering and traveling throughout Africa, South America, and the Middle East have formed a foundational understanding of myself and the global inequality that drives my work.

What do you like to do for fun or relaxation?

I paint, do pottery, go hiking, and attend as many live music shows as possible.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

Pay attention to your needs outside of intellectual thought. Listen to your body, get ample exercise, get out to the mountains or the ocean, and find a project that you love as soon as possible. I've been so much clearer cognitively and intellectually since I started prioritizing balance and an embodied, holistic lifestyle.