11/18/2016 05:31 EST | Updated 11/18/2016 05:31 EST

Successful Schools Of The Future Support Their Communities

Across Canada, forward-thinking universities and colleges are finding innovative ways to give back to the communities they call home. In so doing, these institutions are also improving the quality of education for their students and strengthening their own relevance in a changing world.

benedek via Getty Images
Photo of the gothic revival style University Hall at the main campus of McMaster University, a public research university in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

By Craig and Marc Kielburger

It's the most macabre field trip we've heard of. In the fall of 2015, 22 participants in a McMaster University program hiked to a cemetery in Hamilton, Ont., to view the graves of city residents who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic.

The unusual excursion was part of a free course on the history of plagues in Hamilton, offered through McMaster's Discovery Program. It's an initiative that gives educational opportunities to local residents who, for social or economic reasons, haven't been able to get a post-secondary education. Discovery is one part of what McMaster's strategy for using the university's resources to benefit the city.

Across Canada, forward-thinking universities and colleges are finding innovative ways to give back to the communities they call home. In so doing, these institutions are also improving the quality of education for their students and strengthening their own relevance in a changing world.

The benefits of these kinds of collaborations accrue back to the institutions.

The Discovery Program has run free 12-week courses since 2011. McMaster wants the program to foster a passion for learning, and possibly even start participants on the path to higher learning, explains McMaster president Patrick Deane. This fall's course offering is studying diversity, and how cultural differences make communities like Hamilton stronger and more resilient.

The university offers free childcare and transit passes to make classes more accessible. Deane adds there's always a line-up to enrol, and professors fight for the privilege of teaching in the program.

In another community-oriented initiative, McMaster opened a medical centre in downtown Hamilton last year. Med students are getting a hands-on education providing health services to some 16,000 city residents who don't have a family doctor.

Ryerson University in Toronto is cultivating community green thumbs. Torontonians can participate in Ryerson's HomeGrown program, volunteering, learning gardening skills and getting nutritious fresh food from the eight on-campus gardens.

Further west, the University of Winnipeg's offers a "model high school" for disadvantaged local youth -- particularly young aboriginal people -- who show strong academic potential. Tailored secondary school courses prepare them for university, and they're accepted into UWinnipeg's scholarship programs.

By supporting their communities in productive ways... colleges and universities reinforce their relevance in the modern world.

And the University of Victoria puts its brain power at the disposal of the community. Its researchers help local organizations, and also work with businesses to find commercial uses for on-campus discoveries. Through the UVic Speakers Bureau, schools and community groups can host experts who give free talks on a wide range of topics. Nearby, the University of British Columbia and the other universities and colleges in Vancouver are involved in a similar initiative. Through a partnership called CityStudio, students earn credits for studying, and develop solutions to, local challenges.

The benefits of these kinds of collaborations accrue back to the institutions.

Increasingly, students can access university-level teaching almost anywhere. With ever more online courses and internet-based private schools, it's possible for a student to sit at home and listen to a lecture given by a professor halfway around the world. Even some academics are starting to ponder whether our society still needs brick-and-mortar institutions anymore.

By supporting their communities in productive ways, solving local challenges like access to health care, colleges and universities reinforce their relevance in the modern world. Initiatives like those above also create added educational value that students could never get from a Skype lecture. They provide young people hands-on experience and, just as important, meaning in their education.

Studies like the annual Deloitte Millennial Survey show upcoming generations want to know how their consumer purchases and jobs make a difference in the world. We believe the same applies to their education. If students can use their learning to support the broader community, it will give them the meaning they crave.

The successful schools of the future will be active and engaged supporters of their communities.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.  

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