Our History

House post @ the Learning Exchange

The UBC Learning Exchange was founded in 1999 to ― as our name suggests ― build relationships between the university and other communities. These relationships are based on the premise that learning is a two-way street. This approach has been so successful that, as of the summer of 2011, learning exchanges that bring UBC students into the community are now part of the fabric of the UBC’s offerings to students. For more info visit the UBC-Community Learning Initiative.

The view of learning as a two-way street is crucial to how we’ve built our programs for people who live and work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and surrounding neighbourhoods. We have inspired others to learn, discover, contribute and get involved. People from the community have led thousands of English conversation sessions and have introduced absolute beginners to the world of information technology.

We didn’t just set out to share knowledge created in the university. We’ve worked with community members, students, faculty and staff to share their knowledge, creating new partnerships, new connections, cultivating new understandings and experiences, results we could never have gotten on our own.

To learn more about how we have evolved read our history:

Setting the Stage (1998–2000)

The Learning Exchange came about because of a commitment to community engagement made as part of the University of British Columbia’s Trek 2000 visioning exercise. In Summer 1999, Margo Fryer and Brian Lee ― two UBC students ― began talking to members of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) community about how UBC could best develop a community presence. Their results are found in the Challenge and Promise report. As this report notes, there was a range of opinion about UBC’s plans, including some skepticism and resistance.

Soon after, in Fall 1999, the UBC Learning Exchange Trek Program (named after UBC’s Trek 2000 vision) introduced 30 UBC student volunteers to eight non-profit organizations and two elementary schools in the Downtown Eastside. Students responded to the program with overwhelming enthusiasm, excited to be able to make a difference in the community.

In Fall 2000, the Learning Exchange opened its original storefront at 121 Main Street, offering free computer access as part of a federally funded network of DTES organizations to bridge “the digital divide.”

Emerging Partnerships (2001–02)

In 2001, the Learning Exchange collaborated with UBC’s School of Music to offer a Music Appreciation course to DTES residents. Music 101 was a highly engaging mix of lectures, performances and discussions.

That same year, the Learning Exchange was fortunate to receive a generous donation from the Kahanoff Foundation, to expand participation in Learning Exchange programs over the next three years.

In 2002, the Learning Exchange collaborated with the University of Guelph on the first Reading Week (spring break) Community Service Learning project in Canada. Nineteen students from both universities spent four days in an immersion-type experience learning about community development from activists in the Downtown Eastside, while helping the Strathcona Garden, the oldest community garden in Vancouver, prepare for the spring growing season.

In 2002, the Learning Exchange took another big step, beginning its efforts to work with faculty members to formally integrate students’ community-based experiences into their academic coursework, an approach called Community Service Learning, or CSL.

The year 2002 was also marked by major gifts from donors. Dr. Lloyd and Mrs. Kay Chapman gave an outstanding gift of $1 million in the form of an endowment to encourage and recognize student leadership in community settings. That same year HSBC Bank Canada gave $200,000 over seven years for educational programs for Downtown Eastside residents. This gift enabled the development of our computer training workshops.

Growing by Leaps and Bounds (2003‒05)

By 2003, the Learning Exchange was on a roll.

The number of students participating in the Trek Program doubled every year until enrollment had to be capped.

The Learning Exchange partnership with the Vancouver Board of Education expanded to bring UBC students into more East Vancouver schools where they did tutoring, after-school activities and special projects.

Between 2003 and 2004, the number of students involved in Reading Week projects jumped from 40 to 200.

In 2004, HSBC Bank Canada doubled its original gift, committing another $100,000 over seven years. This gift enabled us to establish an innovative English-as-a-second-language (ESL) conversation program, designed by graduate students from UBC’s planning school in collaboration with local residents. For its part, the afternoon drop-in was operating at capacity. A variety of free courses for local residents were developed in collaboration with campus and community partners during this period, including Music 101, Entrepreneurship 101 and Self-Advocacy 101. Special events, including music concerts, film showings and discussions led by UBC faculty also happened regularly.

In 2005, HSBC Bank Canada committed $50,000 to develop programs to enhance the learning environment in inner-city schools by getting even more UBC students acting as mentors and role models. TELUS also provided $100,000 over two years to further support the work of UBC students in elementary schools. During this period, Business Objects (now SAP Canada) began providing financial support for the Reading Week projects.

By fall 2005, Community Service Learning had been incorporated into 41 courses.

Time for Reflection (2006‒07)

The preceding period of rapid, ad hoc growth led to a time for reflection on what had been accomplished and for raising questions about what the Learning Exchange’s priorities should be. These reflections took place as two major new initiatives were being launched. The need to think strategically about what our core activities were and what outcomes we were aiming to achieve provided the impetus for further growth.

In 2006, a new Learning Exchange was created at UBC Okanagan, made possible by a visionary gift from James and Shirley-Anne Eccott of Kelowna. The UBC-Community Learning Initiative was also launched in 2006 with a grant of almost $1 million from the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, part of its commitment to entrench CSL in Canada. This grant has enabled the UBC Learning Exchange, through the UBC-CLI, to build a unique model for curricular Community Service Learning.

Regeneration (2008‒10)

This period saw increased strategic focus in our programs and activities, an influx of new staff members and a move to a much larger storefront location at 612 Main Street in Chinatown. This move enabled a significant expansion of the Learning Exchange computer training and ESL conversation programs. An extraordinary gift of $1.75 million over seven years from HSBC Bank Canada will ensure the continuation of these programs as well as much of the work done by UBC students in inner-city schools.

In this period, a strategic plan to advance Community Service Learning and Community-Based Research was prepared. This plan is founded on extensive consultation with our campus and community partners and is closely linked to UBC’s Place and Promise planning efforts. UBC’s institutional vision makes community engagement and experiential learning key strategic priorities for the university.

In 2009, in order to support the Learning Exchange contributions to UBC’s vision, the university provided ongoing core funding to the Learning Exchange.

As we moved into the 2010-11 academic year, more than 2,000 students worked — through the Learning Exchange and the UBC-Community Learning Initiative — with non-profit organizations, public schools and small businesses on a range of collaborative projects. Students now work not only in the Downtown Eastside, but also in other parts of the Lower Mainland and British Columbia.

Into the Future (2011 and beyond)

In the Summer of 2011, one of the ways UBC further embraced the importance of providing Community Service Learning and Community-Based Research, as experiential learning strategies available to UBC students, was by positioning the work of the UBC-Community Learning Initiative (now the Centre for Community Engaged Learning) within the VP Students Portfolio. This change placed the responsibility of engaging students in the community, through hands-on learning, more broadly within the university. While the Learning Exchange continues to engage UBC students through its location and programs at 612 Main Street, it is an exciting time to turn our attention to new ways of making more connections between campus based people and residents in the Downtown Eastside.

At the Learning Exchange, we’re proud of the role we’ve played in fostering global citizenship, advancing a civil and sustainable society and acting as a catalyst for social innovation in our community. Every day we recognize, however, that we do not work alone. Our work depends on the relationships we build with our partners in the community and within the university. We look forward to deepening those relationships, building new relationships and writing the next chapter in our history.

Stay tuned for more.