Meet Sharan Dadhwal:
Sharan Dadhwal is a current University of Guelph MSc Geography student. Sharan also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science undergraduate degree from U of G with minors in Biology and French. During her undergrad, Sharan enrolled not once but twice in ICON, an Experiential Learning course that offers students from all programs and year levels a chance to work inter-disciplinarily to solve real-world problems while working with community partners. Taking ICON helped connect her with professors and other connections in her field of interest, leading to her current master’s thesis, studying bioplastics. Sharan also took part in several Catalyst Programs including the Vancouver and Mississippi trips where she learned about various social justice issues and topics. Sharon tells us more about her experiences with Catalyst Programs and ICON, and shares her insights on the impact of experiential learning, saying that “Some of my best learning experiences have been from Experiential Learning programs and classes.”
Tell us about your experiences in the Catalyst programs! What programs did you take part in and what were they for?
“I have been a part of a few Catalyst programs starting with Vancouver: Inner Cities, in my 3rd year. We spent a lot of time talking to people and learning about the Indigenous history of the land and about the impacts different marginalized groups face in that space. This trip was impactful because I had previously spent time researching Insite, the safe injection site in Vancouver, and although we didn't get to visit the site, talking about mental health, gentrification, and policing helped me learn a lot more about the issue with an intersectional lens.”
“This experience definitely made me want to participate in more programs so, I also went on the Mississippi trip the next year, exploring topics of race, racism, and poverty. Being in Mississippi was such a privilege. We got to learn from some amazing Black leaders and saw some really cool community initiatives. I participated in the summer food justice program that same year, it was amazing seeing some really cool farms and projects in our own backyard. We also got to make some really good apple sauce and learned canning techniques which was one of the highlights for me.”
“I assisted as a student leader for the Climate Justice program in 2019. That program is super special because I got to see the other side of planning the programs. We even got to participate in a Fridays for Future Climate March and met some incredible people there.”
What was the main takeaway that you pulled from those experiences?
“My main takeaway is that no matter how "progressive" I think I may be, there is always going to be something new for me to unlearn and uncover. And learning doesn't just happen in a classroom.”
Is there anything that you learned during the Catalyst programs that surprised you?
“Most things I learned surprised me and they always come from the most unexpected spaces. You may think your biggest takeaway from a trip to Mississippi may be about racism but turns out it was about generosity and community support (along with other takeaways).”
Why did you decide to do these experiences?
“At first, I did it because I would get to go to a fun cool place and to see stuff that I've researched but I continued to do them because I loved the connections, friends I made and all the unexpected learnings.”
Tell us about ICON! What is this course?
“ICON is a course offered by Dr. Shoshanah Jacobs and Dr. Daniel Gillis. They are an incredible duo working to help students learn by using real-life challenges. Every semester they find new community partners and a project to work on so it will be different from semester to semester. The best part is, it's open for all undergraduate levels from any program so you get to work with a diverse group of people.”
What were the issues that you were working on while in this course?
“I've taken this course twice and each time we were working on the issue with single-use plastics. The first time our community partner was the University of Guelph. We were separated into teams and each team had been given a task to tackle which was to do a single-use plastic audit and analyze the data. The second time the community partner was the City of Guelph and for them, my team found new technologies and initiatives that could be realistically implemented in Guelph to reduce single-use plastics. At the end of each course, we got to prepare a presentation for our community partners and work on our presentation skills as well as prepare a report for them which helped us with our knowledge mobilization and writing skills.”
What was your experience like working with people across all disciplines and year levels? What did you learn from this?
“Both times that I have taken this course I was an upper-year student in my 4th and 5th years. I got to work as a sort of "mentor" for the first years on the team. It was really fun using our different backgrounds and knowledge sets and work together as a team. We were able to use one student's technical experience to help us analyze data and other student's artistic experiences to make our information presentable.”
Would you recommend this course to others? Why or why not?
“Yes! This course is very unique in a University space. The connections you get to build with community partners and with your peers are amazing. I definitely recommend it to upper-year students as you get to use all this knowledge that you've been learning throughout your time in University and actually apply it to real-life situations.”
Did ICON help you decide what you wanted to do for your Masters? If yes, can you please elaborate?
“It definitely did. It got me super interested in plastic research. I even went on to do my own research projects around single-use plastics and this class connected me to my current advisors. I definitely took the path I am on because of this course.”
What is your Masters research currently focused on?
“Currently, I am working on bioplastic research. It's a very interdisciplinary project coordinated between departments. We are working on a life cycle assessment to determine if the environmental impact of bioplastics is better or worse than traditional single-use plastic. This project will help us give insight into how to improve our environmental impact while keeping food safety a priority.”
Do you have a favourite Experiential Learning memory?
“I have two favourite memories. One is doing the final presentation for the City of Guelph on our single-use plastic project. We had worked very hard and it was very rewarding. My other favourite memory is playing Boggle with some friends during the Climate Justice program, it was one of the funniest games I've ever played. I've made some really amazing life-long friends from these experiences.”
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
“Some of my best learning experiences have been from Experiential Learning programs and classes. I may not remember much from Advanced Cell Biology but I remember and use information from these Experiential Learning programs frequently and to add these programs were super fun. I think these experiences have made me a better scientist and a better friend.”