Increasing Student Engagement at Bow Valley College One Photo at a Time

Published Mar 3, 2015

A unique collaboration between the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement (CEIIA) and the Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning (CEFL) has just wrapped up the first in a series of Digital Diversity workshops intended to increase student engagement and participation within the Bow Valley College (BVC).

Last fall, Candace Witkowskyj (Lead Instructor, Literacy and Disabilities) from CEFL started to think about doing a photojournalism project modelled on NorQuest College’s PhotoVoice project[1]. “I believed that BVC could really benefit from having some of the foundational learners take up more ‘space’ in the College. The CEFL students I have met with, in my Literacy and Disabilities role, have typically expressed a sense of distance from College events. Students have often asked me if they were ‘allowed’ to participate in College events or receive free student benefits (such as the agendas/daytimers handed out to students) as they did not feel entitled to the same things at the College as other post-secondary students.” She found out that the Intercultural Center (IC) within the CEIIA has really prioritized student engagement and was doing a similar photography project. When Candace approached the IC, they invited CEFL to partner with them. The Digital Diversity Project was born.

Canada Geese by Wei Liu

Canada Geese by Wei Liu

The overall intent of the project is to have a greater representation of student voice throughout the College through the medium of visual photography. Furthermore, the intent is to increase the understanding of the dimensions of diversity. The project offers all students a meaningful way to engage and showcase interesting aspects of their unique cultures and diverse identities. Students build their confidence and feel a greater sense of belonging within the College community.

Moving forward, CEFL and CEIIA are continuing their partnership and exploring different ways to better engage learners, build awareness, and promote future events. Faculty are encouraged to watch for the next installment in the Digital Diversity Project and support learners to participate.

First in the series: Exploring the meaning of diversity, exclusion, and inclusion

In this first workshop, consisting of four sessions, a group of students spent time learning about the meaning of diversity, exclusion, and inclusion using photography. The first two sessions focused on cultural diversity and the last two on disability diversity. As part of their learning, students were also introduced to some simple, but effective, digital photography techniques.

In the first session, Tahira Ebrahim (Centre Liaison Officer at the IC) began by talking about the meaning of inclusion and exclusion as they are related to cultural diversity. “Inclusion is the practice of helping people feel like they belong, and are included. It means creating a setting where no one feels left out, and feels safe to be who they are. Exclusion is when you, or others, are not included, either in obvious ways, for example, from membership in a club, or not so obvious ways, for example, feeling left out from an informal study group.” She asked the students to think about the diverse cultures in the college community. How was the college welcoming? What were some of the barriers? She went on to describe and show the group examples of photos depicting cultural diversity and inclusion. “Photos of cultural diversity can range from people and practices, to art and architecture, and even the environment. Examples of places in Calgary can include the Chinese Cultural Centre, places of worship throughout the city, or even places at the College, such as the Aboriginal Centre and Multi-Faith Room. Cultural diversity can also be shown through a culture’s history such as the Stampede or other historic buildings.” Tahira emphasized always being respectful when taking photos of people, places, and cultural settings.

During the second part of this session, Heidi Beyer, ESL instructor and keen amateur photographer, introduced students to the photography ‘rule of thirds’. “When you prepare to take a photo, imagine that the viewfinder of your phone or camera is split into three columns and three rows. To make your photo interesting, think about putting objects along the lines of the inside points [shown in red below]. Research shows that people’s eyes look at one of these points naturally, not the middle of the photo.”

rule of thirds








As part of their learning process, students were assigned to take photos showing cultural diversity and using the rule of thirds before the next session.

Village in China by Alice Yuhing Wu

Village in China by Alice Yuhing Wu

In the second session, students returned and shared their photos, and the stories behind them. One student showed a photo of a Chinese temple with colorful prayer flags flying in the wind. She explained that in China the wind blowing through the flags signified luck blowing through the village. Another student showed a photo she had taken of Canada geese flying in a ‘v’ formation above the Calgary skyline. She spoke about this sight being very Canadian. However, she was puzzled. Her caption for the photo was “Why are the geese still here in winter?” Another student showed a photo she had taken of a striking Alberta prairie sunset. All three photos demonstrated an understanding of portraying a culture through place and used the rule of thirds to great effect.

In the third session, Candace Witkowskyj (Lead Instructor, Literacy and Disabilities) introduced the topic of diversity as it relates to abilities, disabilities, exclusion, and inclusion. She explained that if we want to genuinely include people with disabilities in community and college life, we need to recognize and respect that there is diversity among persons with disabilities. “Persons with disabilities are a complex group of people with different identities, rights, and beliefs. We need to respect the fact that not all disabilities are the same and support people to express themselves and their uniqueness in the world without viewing them just for their disability.” She explained that the term ‘disability’ can include physical disabilities, mental health conditions, for example, depression or anxiety, and cognitive or intellectual disabilities, for example, developmental disabilities or learning disabilities such as dyslexia). Introducing some examples of photographs, Candace showed different ways to portray the issues and diverse lives of persons with disabilities in meaningful ways. Persons with physical disabilities were shown participating in non-traditional activities such as modelling, ballet dancing, and oil painting. Other photos recalled Alberta’s sad history of institutionalizing persons with developmental disabilities. One particularly powerful photo showed several volumes of the periodical titled “Eugenics Quarterly”, which existed in Alberta until 1968.

Prairie sunset by Kristine Suhan Hu

Prairie sunset by Kristine Suhan Hu

In the second part of this session, students considered ‘viewpoint’. Heidi explained that usually we take photos at our own eye level. “But if we change our viewpoint, we can create more visually interesting photos.” She suggested thinking about viewpoint before taking a photo. “Where can you stand or sit to make the photo more interesting? Should you get really close to your subject, or very far away?” She showed several examples of how viewpoint can be visually dramatic. One striking photo, taken from the top of an escalator looking down on the person in a wheelchair below, combined viewpoint and disability diversity. This was a perfect example for the students as they were assigned to take photos of disability diversity using different viewpoints for the next session.

In the final session, students learned a third photography technique called ‘leading lines’. Heidi explained that a photographer can use lines that occur naturally to draw your attention to a particular subject. She showed examples of the use of lines in photos of a road winding around to a house, train tracks emphasizing the horizon, and shadows and window frames creating visually arresting scenes.

At the conclusion of the workshop, students were encouraged to continue taking photos using the three photography techniques they had learned and to send them in to be included in the upcoming Gallery Walk. “An important piece of this first series of workshops is that your student photos and personal reflections will be included as part of the Intercultural Centre’s Gallery Walk taking place March 9, 2015. They are intended to be a part of celebrating Intercultural Week here at the College, especially in light of our theme, The Art of Diversity,” Kelty Christensen (Learner Engagement Officer at the IC) explained. “Please keep sending me your photos. And remember, I am here to help you if you have questions about your photos or about writing your personal reflections.”

Faculty and students are invited to join the Intercultural Centre in celebrating diversity and inclusion during Intercultural Week, March 9 to 13, through the Gallery Walk (March 9th, from 12 pm – 1 pm) and many other planned activities.

(See for the full lineup of Intercultural Week activities.)


Kelty Christensen, Learner Engagement Officer at the Intercultural Centre:

Tahira Ebrahim, Centre Liaison Officer at the Intercultural Centre:

Heidi Beyer, ESL Instructor:

Candace Witkowskyj, Lead Instructor, Literacy and Disabilities, Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning:

Samra Admasu, Communications Officer, Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning:


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