Mei Lein Harrison
Meet Mei Lein Harrison:
About Mei Lein
Mei Lein Harrison is a fourth-year student majoring in Studio Art and minoring in Arts, Culture and Heritage Management. She has been actively involved on campus since beginning studies at the University of Guelph, taking part in several clubs and organizations such as the Fine Arts Network (FAN), while also enrolling in experiential learning courses including a photography course that worked with the Guelph Black Heritage Society (GBHS) to document renovations happening last year. We met with Mei Lein to talk more about her involvement and what she learned from the experiences, including what her advice would be for anyone interested in getting involved with experiential learning.
What has your involvement in experiential learning been so far?
“I’m the Communications Coordinator and Interim VP for FAN, and I run the Improv Club where I facilitate the ensemble team as well. I also volunteer for the LINK program, so each semester I’m buddied up with an exchange student and I help guide them through their experience at U of G. In 2nd year, I was part of a similar program where I was an English Learning Partner for international students.”
“As I went on in University, I continued to experience the benefits of experiential learning, and just got more and more involved, not just in clubs but in courses too. The Guelph Black Heritage Society was renovating Heritage Hall, a building used by the organization as a cultural, historical and social center to serve the community, and they were looking for photography students to document the renovation. So, three other photography students and I received a credit to document the renovation process over the course of 5 months, culminating in a photographic exhibition involving the community at Boarding House Gallery called ‘In Remembrance of Me’.”
Can you talk a little more about that experience and what was involved in the course?
“There was also a research portion to the course, so we started researching Black history in Guelph specifically and Canada in general to ensure we were informed going into this project. I was learning a lot about the Guelph community that I had not known before, and the history of Canadian race relations in general. I hadn’t really delved into this topic on a more personal level before, and the book I read was a memoir of former Guelph Chancellor Lincoln Alexander, so it was very interesting to learn from a first-person perspective in such a familiar setting. I am also a person of colour, my father coming from Jamaica and my mother’s side from China, so It was very compelling to absorb all of these experiences relative to my own story and my family’s.”
“The memoir of Lincoln Alexander started with him growing up in Toronto with his father and in the States while living with his mother, with many events, after he moved back to Canada permanently, based in the GTA as well. It was interesting to see a comparison of racism in the States versus Canada because we don’t learn a lot about that in school in depth, and a lot of the information and media we consume about anti-black racism is American, so it was very interesting to read an account from a Canadian perspective, and furthermore, about the community I am in.”
“The research and readings helped inform our direction with the project and how we documented the space, we then worked with Susan Dobson and Guelph Black Heritage Society to photograph the transformation of the building.”
How was the process of documenting? Have you done documentation like that before?
“No, it was quite a new experience for me. I mostly have experience doing candid portraiture and hadn’t really gone out of that comfort zone until around that semester. We were communicating directly with the Guelph Black Heritage Society to understand exactly what they wanted and how we could portray that with our own artistic vision. We chose to highlight the workers that were doing the renovations and who we had built a good rapport with over the months, but we also wanted to make sure we were highlighting those off sight as well. We chose to do things like include Denise’s (President of GBHS) family who were often found on site helping with the project and who we had interacted with, and since it’s such a familial organization, it felt right to highlight the head family as part of the exhibition as well and lend to the notion of heritage.”
“I personally chose to document smaller details, so images that would showcase the interaction with the space. Since we weren’t able to see the space when there were people in it due to scheduling, I thought it would help showcase the connection it has to the community; the wear and tear and the impressions that humans have left behind on the space.”
“Over the first four months, we were trying to find a direction to go, because there are so many avenues to explore with the building and the people who are using it. We were very hesitant to include any trace of ourselves, but in the end, one picture of me made it into the exhibition. It was a picture of me doing a rubbing of the original door, which we then scanned digitally and blew up onto a large piece of adhesive vinyl for the exhibition. It was cool to at first be so hesitant to leave a trace of ourselves in the narrative, to overtime understanding that we are now a piece of the building’s history as well.”
What did you learn from the experience?
“I think the collaborative aspect of the work we were doing was huge, and it was challenging at times. It instilled a lot of values in terms of work ethic that I may not have had as strongly before. Organization, communication, and self-regulation were very important because a lot of the work we were doing was directed by us, so we had a lot of control over how the show looked.”
Why do you take Experiential Learning and what would your advice be to someone who’s thinking about it?
“It’s almost kind of like, ‘why not?’. The opportunities are there and they’re so accessible; they’re almost handed to you – in terms of clubs especially! Everyone is probably going to walk into the UC during Club Day at some point during their 4 years at the University, and it’s so easy to walk over to a table and write your name down and show up every once in a while. What you get out of it is so enriching to your University experience that the little effort is worth it. There’s such a variety of things on campus too. You can fulfill whatever direction you want to go; it doesn’t even have to pertain to your area of study. Join whatever club you want and have fun!”