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Simon Fraser University – Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue

The Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue addresses what we believe is the principal challenge for contemporary education: to inspire students with a sense of civic responsibility, encourage their passion to improve Canadian society, and develop innovative intellectual tools for effective problem solving. Each semester we develop an original and intensive learning experience that uses dialogue to focus student education on public issues.

The Undergraduate Semester is associated with the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at SFU's Harbour Centre campus in downtown Vancouver. The Wosk Centre was conceived to encourage public assembly through dialogue-based programs and conferences that address social issues.

In each full-time, one-semester undergraduate Dialogue program we:

  • Engage students with pressing public issues
  • Foster interdisciplinary approaches
  • Participate in active, discussion-based learning rather than lectures
  • Encourage critical thinking and analysis
  • Expose students to deep understanding of diverse viewpoints
  • Develop a network of intriguing, experienced, and accomplished speaker/facilitators
  • Offer intensive mentoring opportunities
  • Provide small class sizes
  • Focus on communication skills
  • Encourage student involvement in project design and topic selection
  • Link students from diverse backgrounds
  • Build a blend of teamwork experience and individual initiative

A different focal topic is offered each semester, with themes emerging through consultations with community advisors. Offerings to date have included broad topic areas such as The Urban Experience; Health: Issues and Ethics; Art and Community; and Nature, Environment, and Society. The 15-credit curriculum consists of three simultaneous courses, DIAL 390, 391, and 392. Twenty students from diverse departments and faculties are selected for each program through a rigourous application process. We seek students interested in disciplinary and experiential breadth, and our admission criteria emphasize motivation, community engagement, and accomplishments in addition to academic achievement.

Dialogue and Learning

Dialogue is a particularly effective educational paradigm, involving collaborative listening and learning to discover meaning among diverse participants, and is best conducted in the context of citizenship and civic engagement. Dialogue offers helpful ways to relate to one another, and leads to better-quality outcomes than the adversarial, position-based discussions that typically characterize debate about complex issues. Dialogue-based processes build deep relationships through free expression of views and respectful exploration of differences, with positive action emerging through mutual understanding around sources of agreement and disagreement.

We approach dialogue-based curriculum using a number of practical strategies. Courses begin with a first-day exercise in which the students design their own introductions and produce biographies of each other. Focused sessions about dialogue conducted by faculty and Fellows at Simon Fraser's Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue enrich the students' understanding of how to talk together, while participation in formal dialogues at the Centre provide real-world examples of dialogue in action.

The most effective learning experiences with dialogue emerge through class sessions with guests, during which students have opportunities to engage deeply with diverse community members. We debrief each session to probe how the conversation had proceeded, what aspects had worked well, and what the students might have done differently to improve interactions and build trust.

This paradigm has provided students with a range of experiences that link academia and community in a particularly effective way, allowing for extraordinarily open and content-rich conversations. Students improve dramatically in their skills at "reading the room," perceiving issues percolating beneath the surface of conversations and interpreting underlying themes, issues, and personalities.

Students also conduct individual and group projects on a regular basis, prepare a number of written assignments, give oral presentations, and participate in dialogue sessions. Feedback on assignments is intense, requiring rewriting and revision of coursework to provide the maximum possible input to students. Students meet individually with faculty each week for mentoring and discussions concerning their progress and challenges.


The impact of the Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue on both students and community has been striking. We see substantial improvement in students' motivation to engage with public issues, as well as increasing commitment to leadership roles and civic responsibility in their future lives. Tangible outcomes emerge during and after each semester that have had significant community impact. For example:

  • Students frequently publish their op-ed assignments in newspapers including the Globe and Mail, National Post, Vancouver Sun, and Toronto Star, among others.
  • Some students organized and facilitated a public dialogue at which Alexandre Trudeau presented his documentary Embedded in Baghdad, and others planned and conducted a conference on "Spirituality and the Environment," each attended by over 150 participants.
  • Students also regularly facilitate breakout sessions during public events, such as the Vancouver Police Forums on Community Relations, and Imagine BC.
  • Subsequent employment often emerges, including jobs researching urban sprawl with SmartGrowth BC, coordinating communications or the non-partisan youth voting project Get Your Vote Out, managing projects for Context Research (a firm specializing in public consultation for clients such as the Greater Vancouver Regional District and the Ministry of Transportation), developing programs for Vancouver's Office of Cultural Affairs, writing for Western Living magazine and the Vancouver Courier, coordinating projects and liaising with members of the Citizen's Assembly for Electoral Reform, and soliciting community input for transit planning at the Vancouver region's transit provider TransLink, among many others.
  • One class, Art and Community, had the extraordinary experience of creating "Art Takes Route," a public art competition designed, advertised, and adjudicated entirely by the students.
  • Students in The Urban Experience submitted a winning proposal for Vancouver's "21 Ideas for the 21st Century" competition. Their Second City project took on the task of re-imagining Vancouver's alleyways, incorporating policy and design components. Their designs were incorporated into a book and posters, featured in numerous radio and print media, and are being implemented by Vancouver's Planning Department in collaboration with the students.

These and innumerable other outcomes suggest that the Semester is generating profound impact on Canadian students and the communities in which they reside.

Our melding of academia with the society around us, science with the social sciences and humanities, and professors with community leaders provides a unique environment for learning. Dialogue has proven effective in forging strong links between coursework and community, creating a blend of attitudes, expertise, and intellectual dexterity that is particularly suited to resolving the myriad and complex problems facing contemporary society.

The Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue focuses on strategically enhancing Simon Fraser University's mission to educate students to be productive, creative, well-balanced, reflective, and engaged members of society, with the flexibility to adapt readily to change and the skills to contribute meaningfully towards public policy.

There is no more important task than encouraging young Canadians to care about the world around them, and providing them with the tools to be effective ambassadors for progress.

Resource Link: www.sfu.ca/dialogue/undergrad/index.htm

Harbour Centre Building, 515 West Hastings Street




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