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Making an impact in sustainability through WIL

How the University of Waterloo is advancing sustainability goals in their work-integrated learning programs.


The United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) are 17 goals created by the United Nations as a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. Can students advance the global challenges highlighted in the SDGs? Absolutely!

At the University of Waterloo, students can incorporate these important initiatives in their work-integrated learning (WIL) experiences, thanks to work being done by the Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) unit.

Providing an opportunity to engage

Recently launched by CEE, SDGs at Work is a term-based activity that students can choose to participate in during their work experiences. The activity has multiple steps, with questions that students can use for awareness building about the sustainability direction of the organization they’re at and how they can contribute towards it. It also encourages students to engage their work supervisors in meaningful conversations related to the SDGs. This activity was piloted with international co-operative education work terms from Spring 2021 to Fall 2022. Based on excellent outcomes seen with participating employers and students, CEE expanded the offering to all work experiences starting Spring 2023.

CEE hosts an introductory webinar that students and supervisors attend to understand the process of the activity and best practices for maximizing use of the content. After the introductory webinar, students and supervisors can work through the steps of the activity for the duration of their work term. Students reflect on their own understanding of the SDGs and can engage in deeper conversations with their supervisors about their perspectives. Within the provided workbook, students dig deeper into understanding the organization’s SDG priorities and opportunities to integrate sustainability within their business systems. This helps the student to explore solutions for advancing the SDGs, both personally and for the organization.

Finally, at the end of term webinar, available to students only, they discuss their learnings from the term in a group setting. Facilitators offer insights and opportunities to leverage their experiences for future academic success and career development.

Students hope to seek SDG-related future work opportunities

Throughout the pilot, CEE collected data via a post-activity survey of both students and employers. When asked their motivation for engaging with the SDGs, making a positive impact on the world was the most selected answer by students.

Through their work experiences, students indicated they believed they had the most impact on the following goals:

  • SDG 4 – quality education.
  • SDG 5 – gender equality.
  • SDG 8 – decent work and economic growth.
  • SDG 9 – industry, innovation and infrastructure.

All student respondents noted they will be seeking further work opportunities related to the SDGs when asked about their impact on future direction.

When supervisors were asked their motivation for participating in the activity, they reported a desire to learn more about SDGs and to develop future SDGs best practices. Supervisors saw two distinct future areas in which they plan to engage with the SDGs:

  • Engaging with stakeholders – upstream and downstream in the business chain.
  • Providing support to other organizations looking to advance the SDGs.

When analyzing data from the activity, it concluded that participating in the activity can be a mechanism to improve the quality of engagement between student and supervisor and deepen the working relationship between students and supervisors during work terms. Most significantly, the activity can drive further exploration of the SDGs in future work and academic terms.

What’s next for WIL and sustainability?

CEE continues to prioritize raising awareness and need for action to help advance the SDGs with students and the organizations where they complete their WIL experiences. As of this month, CEE is offering SDGs at Work across all WIL experiences. CEE will continue to gather data from participating students and their work supervisors on their self-reported impact on the SDGs through the work the students perform on their work experiences. The greater goal is to help students become change agents who can influence and impact the SDGs in their long-term careers.

This column is coordinated through the Internationalization of Student Affairs Community of Practice of the Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS). For comments or questions please contact [email protected].

Shabnam (Shay) Ivković is director for international strategic initiatives in co-operative & experiential education at the University of Waterloo. Micaela Kelly is a communications specialist for co-operative & experiential education at U of Waterloo.
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