How to engage, expand and explore beyond the classroom: Advice from upper-year students

How do McMaster students engage, expand and explore? There are probably more opportunities than you can think of. And when it comes to narrowing down your options, learning from your peers’ experiences is a great place to start. On March 26, we hosted an event to help students do just that.

April 15, 2024

By: Jessica Vinluan

Engage, Expand and Explore: Opportunities Beyond the Classroom featured two panel discussions led by nine upper-year students. Additionally, information booths helped students discover flexible opportunities to collaborate with peers in different Faculties on community-based research projects, design challenges and more.

Student panelists.
Left to right: Rand Al-Wazzan (third year), Vaishali Dave (third year), Runisan Natheeswaran (fourth year), Melissa Cortez (final year), Mallika Grover (second year)
Left to right: Krishian Camargo (recent grad), Gurjaap Mangat (third year), Isabela Sipos (fourth year), Kashish Sikka (third year)

Here are four highlights from the panel discussion

1. The impact of community-focused leadership

“Now, I’m going to get personal,” said Melissa Cortez, a final-year McMaster social work student and Research Shop participant. “I am Filipino, I was born and raised in Toronto, but I think the experiences that I saw throughout the project, were things that I experienced growing up.”

A Research Shop project leads to a report prepared by a team of student researchers in response to a community organization’s research question.

Cortez shared her experience partnering with Filipinas of HamOnt to explore post-secondary within Filipino youth, analyzing the barriers and attendance to develop programming and supports. “Being able to work on this project, not only allowed me to explore a topic I was very personally motivated in researching; I was also able to develop the skills and the research knowledge.” Her work with Research Shop inspired her to pursue community-based research in graduate school.

McMaster grad and team lead at Research Shop, Krishian Camargo, echoed the value of working with community partners. Camargo had led five projects, including the Muslim Advisory Council of Canada, Hamilton Encampment Support Network, United Way Halton and Hamilton, Youth Alliance for Intersectional Justice and most recently, with Filipinas of HamOnt.

“[Community partners] bring a different kind of knowledge you don’t hear about in classes… We are working with people who are actively addressing these issues to turn them into action.”

Krishian Camargo

2. The value of experience beyond the classroom

Rand Al-Wazzan, a third-year student in the Honours Environmental Science program with an interdisciplinary minor in Sustainability and certification in Urban Planning, said, “I found it difficult to engage in meaningful connections and conversations in a traditional classroom setting.” Opportunities like CityLAB Semester in Residence (SIR) provided ways for her to form these connections to address issues outside the lecture hall. Al-Wazzan said, “CityLAB SIR does a great job of how the real world and the city functions. You work with real-world projects with City of Hamilton such as climate change.”

Isabela Sipos, a fourth-year Environment and Society and Political Science student, also spoke about the benefits of courses like CityLAB, “I am one person and my voice and the work that I’m doing actually matters.”

“Experiential learning opportunities at Mac are so special because in a typical classroom and academic setting, we learn about what are the local, national, global issues the world is facing, [but] how do we go about addressing them? In CityLAB, we had the opportunity to work with the community.”

Isabela Sipos

Gurjaap Mangat, a third-year Mechanical Engineering student who was seeking ways to develop their problem-solving and analytical skills, joined MacChangers, a co-curricular program open to all McMaster students from different Faculties and levels of study.

Mangat said, “MacChangers is such an involved program. You are asked a question at the beginning of the term, and you are trying to find a solution. They ask you different questions, whereas in your academics, they are seeking a specific answer.”

3. You never know where opportunities will take you

Runisan Natheeswaran, a fourth-year Honours Life Sciences student, EXPLORE and INSPIRE student ambassador, shared how in his second year, he didn’t have experiential opportunities on his resume.

This led him to participate in INSPIRE Intersession as a Welcome Week representative, which was his introduction to experiential learning opportunities. Through this connection, his supervisor shared the Welcome Week Orientation course that focuses on leadership past Welcome Week.

“[INSPIRE] focused on my soft skills in communication and leadership skills. I met a lot of great people and hone on my soft skills and felt more comfortable with myself and taking more leadership roles.”

4. There’s growth in feeling uncomfortable

Vaishali Dave, a third-year Mechanical Engineering student was seeking meaningful ways to get involved. She shared her MacChangers project on how to make greenspaces more accessible to Hamiltonians. Dave said, “I combined my passion for environmental sustainability and something that I’m not familiar with, how to make space more accessible.”

“I am a firm believer that you don’t learn unless you are uncomfortable. This was a fulfilling experience for me, not only professionally, academically but personally. I was really learning and becoming more confident version of myself while working on something that I was unfamiliar with but excited about.”

Vaishali Dave

Mallika Grover is a second-year Honours Commerce student who shared the value of volunteering as a buddy/mentor for international students. Grover said, “I was a very different person before I was volunteering. I wouldn’t even speak a word to anybody but now I have learned how to communicate. As a mentor for nine international students, some from the same country as me. There is a level of relatability, and I could talk to them about what to do before and the problems I faced.”

Student presenting at a panel event.

Kashish Sikka, a third-year B-tech Biotechnology student echoed the value of being uncomfortable. Getting involved in EXPLORE as a student ambassador and the different opportunities changed his perspective and life. “Engaging within the community helped me get through loneliness or being away from the family. This experience brought a different me from the last two years.”