McGill University Seminar on Social Connectedness

The outstanding students featured here were part of Professor Kim Samuel’s international development seminar, Lessons of Community and Compassion: Overcoming Social Isolation and Building Social Connectedness Through Policy and Program Development at McGill University in Montreal.

The interdisciplinary 400-level seminar course is the first of its kind and explores the concepts of isolation and connectedness on various levels. Professor Samuel carefully curates the course to focus on marginalized communities around the world, while simultaneously creating a community and a deep feeling of connectedness within the classroom itself.

Decades of research show that students thrive most when schools prioritize social and emotional health alongside academic achievement. Building on this awareness, Professor Samuel advances a pedagogy grounded in what she refers to as ‘a second set of three Rs: Respect, Recognition, and Reciprocity’.

The course includes guest speakers almost every week to bear witness to personal struggle and triumph, deep experience, passion and commitment. Guests open doorways for the students to appreciate different perspectives and realize different opportunities that they may explore in their own lives.

In addition, classes are structured to encourage engagement. Every class begins with an artistic reflection, such as poetry or music, and closes with an opportunity for personal inquiry and reflection. In between, students are challenged with both required readings as well as lengthy lists of recommended and optional readings and sources of information to explore. A variety of assignments encourage students to connect on campus and in their community to deeply consider challenging topics through a variety of lenses.

Students are also formally and informally encouraged to connect outside of the classroom and Professor Samuel creates spaces for dialogue and connection on an ongoing basis. Students have been invited to participate in events such as the 2016 Global Symposium and the Sauvé Series, and are regularly encouraged to attend Professor Samuel’s extended office hours. This remarkable learning opportunity has inspired students to remain connected as they explore ways to take forward their learning in the next phases of their careers and lives.

Professor Samuel sums up the experience of teaching the course and inspiring others to advance community in the classroom: “When we nurture creativity and connection, when we create dialogue and learning opportunity grounded in respect, recognition and reciprocity, we empower young people to lead in building a more connected and compassionate future beyond the classroom, too.”

Class of 2016



The Costs of Making Money: The Hukou System and its Effects on the Social Isolation of Rural-to-Urban Migrant Workers in China
By Orla Magill

Orla is in her third year at McGill University studying international development and east Asian studies. Her particular interest is in the intersection between international business and development economics, specifically within the context of China.

This essay looks at the phenomenon of rural-to-urban labour migration in the context of China’s rapidly developing economy. In 2014, 274 million people in China identified as being migrant workers. This mass migration has facilitated the exploitation of migrants’ low cost of labour in the non-agricultural sector, while also allowing rural areas to increase their productivity in agriculture. Although residents are now free to migrate where they choose, there are numerous institutional barriers that prevent them from having access to the same public goods as an urban worker, most prominent of which being the restrictive hukou registration system. Due to the inequalities perpetuated by this system and the lack of effective policy initiatives implemented by relevant institutions, migrants are widely discriminated against and often face severe isolation.


Reintegrating Prisoners into Society through Sports-Based Programs and Policies
By Ilinca Gradea

Born in France and raised in Singapore, but with roots in Romania, Ilinca recently graduated from McGill University with a B.A in international development. In the future, she plans on working in the vast field of sports and to participate in projects that showcase physical activity as a tool for development and social connectedness.

This essay discusses the value of sports programming in prisons as a means of furthering individual empowerment and helping prisoners develop the tools they need to reintegrate and reconnect with society following their release. As explained, high reoffending rates are often due to the disproportionate focus of criminal justice systems on ‘punishing’ offenders instead of helping them rehabilitate with an eye towards reintegrating effectively into society after they have served their time. While most prisons include rehabilitative programs, be they creative or academic, sport has yet to be seriously recognized as a powerful tool of self-transformation. The author analyzes how sports can bring about social cohesion on a societal level and concludes by proposing policies that encourage long-term rehabilitation and foster connectedness.


Overcoming Social Isolation in Marginalized Ethnic Communities: A Debate on Universalism vs. Grassroots Musical Movements as a Powerful Tool to Foster belonging, Respect, and Recognition
By Morgane Ollier

Morgane was born in New York to French parents and lived successively in The Hague, Budapest, and Paris. She recently graduated from McGill University with a B.A in international development and political science, specializing in political ecology and cultural mediation. She is now working for a think-and-do-tank in Paris, researching the links between migration, climate change, and youth involvement.

This essay explores community-based programs as a means of fostering musical expression, identity, and connection among marginalized communities. Building connections and giving hope to the most in need are among the ways music has helped vulnerable communities regain confidence and build belonging. Artistic expression and empowerment help advance human rights not only by enabling minorities to claim their rights and traditions, but also by encouraging individuals and communities to hold governments accountable for change. As a result, music and social connectedness are deeply related. While music has tremendous potential to spur positive social change, its creation, meaning, and use vary across countries and communities. This essay thus considers grassroots experiences carefully, particularly the case of Kaneka music in New Caledonia.


The Integration and Empowerment of Older Immigrants: A Blueprint to Nurturing a Doubly Isolated Demographic
By Vino Wijeyasuriyar

Born and raised in Montreal, Vino Wijeyasuriyar is a student at McGill University pursuing her academic interests in healthcare and human rights. Daughter to two Sri Lankan immigrants, she is deeply curious about the social, psychological, and intergenerational effects of war and forced migration. Vino is also an ardent advocate for women’s issues, particularly in the realm of building policy that empowers women to pursue their personal and professional goals.

This essay examines a group that is particularly susceptible to social isolation: older immigrants. In addition to the anticipated increase in dependence that commonly accompanies the later stages of life, older persons in immigrant families — particularly in the context of immigration from eastern cultures into the western world — are doubly reliant on their families for multiple reasons. For one, language and mobility barriers restrict access to the world outside the home. Cultural expectations can also subordinate the needs of older persons to those of their children and grandchildren. In order to integrate and embrace older persons from immigrant families in a manner that is procedurally dignified and sensitive to their needs, this essay promotes a two-pronged approach that: (1) engages immigrant families in reframing activities that emphasize the multidimensional characters, thriving interests, and non-negligible needs of their grandparents; and (2) empowers older persons to share their insights and communicate their unmet needs.


The Impact of Rural-Urban Migration on China’s Children
By Victoria Lecker

Victoria is from Montreal and recently completed her degree in international development studies at McGill University. In the future, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in environmental studies, as she is passionate about the wellbeing of the Earth and its inhabitants.

This essay discusses the effects of rapid urbanization and rural-urban migration in China on the children that are left behind, as parents turn to urban-based work. While economic and state reforms have increased China’s GDP and urbanization rate, rural-urban migration has come at a cost for the wellbeing of children, as many parents are forced to leave their children behind. As explained, this is primarily due to the registration state reform, also known as the hukou, and the facilities and accommodations of factory work. Thus, many parents must leave their children behind with kin caregivers, or extended families and friends, in order to provide a better future for their children.The critical problem with this arrangement is that the caregivers are often not well suited to take care of the children; even when they are, the absence of the child’s parents can still lead to social isolation. The author therefore argues for policies implemented at the national level to help combat social isolation and feelings of loneliness among China’s left-behind children.




Building Civic Participation and Increasing Social Connectedness through Human-Rights-Based Approaches
By Ana Sofia Hibon

Ana Sofia grew up in Lima, Peru. She recently completed a degree in international development, with a double minor in communication studies and general management, at McGill University. She is passionate about human rights, storytelling, and the intersection of the two. In 2018, she is spending time in southeastern Mexico, exploring the challenges faced by refugees, asylum-seekers, and forced migrants fleeing Central America.

This essay argues that civil participation programs must draw on rights-based approaches in order to enable citizens to effectively hold their governments and civil institutions accountable. Underpinning this argument are assertions that “civic participation and empowerment are pre-conditions for the continuance of all human rights,” and that “social connectedness is a means of increasing the quality and quantity of civic participation.” Expanding on this, the author reviews contemporary citizenship theory, noting that citizens can only realize their fundamental rights through “inclusive, legitimate, and appropriately represented citizen governance”, reinforced by government decision-making. Therefore, government accountability is crucial and can only be sought by engaged citizens. However, an engaged citizenry is partly dependent on societal capacity building. Absent this, people can be deprived of their sense of social and civic belonging, and their exclusion from governance can become normalized. The author writes that a human rights-based approach to development programming is designed to empower civil society to hold “duty bearers for human rights” accountable, and its capacity to do so is “heavily determined by the strength of the social connectedness of its citizens.”


Overcoming Social Isolation of Older People in India
By Celine Thomas

After observing the impacts of education inequity in both Vietnam and Canada, Celine developed a passion for youth empowerment and education reform. She holds a BA in international development studies from McGill University and is currently Research Analyst with The Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness. In the future, Celine plans to work in multiple sectors to build bridges between communities and individuals, with a particular focus on Indigenous youth education and wellbeing.

This essay argues that India’s changing family and social structures have made the country’s seniors more vulnerable to social isolation, and that new national policies must be considered to help mitigate it. India is home to one-eighth of the world’s population over 60. This amounts to approximately 98 million elderly people, with that number expected to rise to 240 million by 2050. While the majority of this population still live with their adult children in multi-generational homes, as is customary, the rising employment of women and migratory work patterns have made it more difficult for families to care for their elders. This has resulted in a new phenomenon of old age residences in India’s cosmopolitan centres. However, the author points out that India lacks a comprehensive social welfare system to support its poor and middle-income seniors, or coherent national policies that address the country’s growing aging population and shifting family living patterns.


Pathways to Reducing Dalit and Scheduled Tribes’ Social Isolation in India
By Claire Chauvel

Born in Hong Kong and raised in Europe, Asia and North America, Claire Chauvel is a joint honours graduate from McGill University in history, international development studies and economics. In the future, Claire plans to focus her career around the intersection of politics and economics, and work to promote economic growth through sustainable and socially inclusive means.

This essay argues that the ongoing discrimination against, and exclusion of, India’s lower castes must be overcome through a multi-faceted approach. This could include initiatives such as “appropriate legislation, enforcement, affirmative action, awareness campaigns, community movements, education, and literature.” Efforts like these would help mitigate the social isolation experienced by as many as 300 million lower caste Indians, as well as enhance the level of social connectedness and productivity in Indian society. The author writes that the caste system is a “direct impediment to development,” and that focus should be on “people centered development,” which grants rights to, and enhances the capabilities, of each individual. But this alone is not enough. The government must allow people the opportunity to make use of them in practice.


Social Isolation and its Relationship to the Urban Environment
By Emma Harries

Born and raised in Vancouver, Emma Harries graduated from McGill University with a degree in international development, psychology, and communications. In the future, she hopes to work to increase accessibility to mental health services internationally and locally through culture-based approaches.

This essay argues that the social isolation experienced by vulnerable individuals in cities can be overcome through human-centered, inclusive urban planning. The rapid urbanization we’re seeing around the world creates many development opportunities, but is also linked to poverty, environmental degradation and other social challenges. The author explains how urbanization impacts mental health, and how despite the presence of vast numbers of people in cities, urban dwellers can find it challenging to build relationships and feel a part of a community. Urban planning heavily focused around cars and transportation rather than public spaces where people are likely to congregate is partly to blame. The author concludes by advocating for the replication of urban development policies and programs that have successfully increased social connectedness.


Inclusive Education and the Global Development Agenda: Promoting Social Connectedness for Children with Disabilities
By Jeremy Monk

Jeremy Monk graduated from McGill University with a degree in international development studies and history, with a minor in education. A native of Montreal, Jeremy served as a Social Connectedness Fellow before beginning graduate studies in international education development at Columbia University.

This essay argues that national and local governments should ensure children with intellectual and physical disabilities have access to quality education through inclusive schools. These schools provide opportunities for disabled children to build bonds with non-disabled children, thereby reducing the social isolation and inequality they commonly experience. Further, inclusive schools foster inclusive communities. As the author notes, despite efforts over the past 30 years to put inclusive education on the global development agenda, progress has not been monitored effectively, and the right of children with disabilities to education has not been adequately promoted. Three case studies are reviewed to demonstrate the positive and negative impacts of different approaches to education for children with disabilities: a non-inclusive education system in Serbia, where children with disabilities are coercively placed in isolated, state-run institutions; an attempt by the Netherlands to implement an inclusive education system, which, absent other key factors, still failed to increase social opportunities for children with disabilities; and a case of an elementary school in Florida that was very successful in helping children with disabilities to thrive through a combination of teacher training, effective monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and extra resources.


Social Isolation and Climate Change: An Inextricable Bind
By Jessica Farber

Jessica Farber graduated from McGill University with a B.A. in international development and is currently working as a Policy Analyst with The Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness. Her interests lie primarily in global health equity and forced displacement with a regional focus on Central America. In the summer of 2015, Jessica interned with an NGO in El Salvador to help carry out Oxfam-funded poverty alleviation projects in rural communities. This past summer, Jessica volunteered at a migrant shelter in southern Mexico, working with refugees and forced migrants from El Salvador and Honduras.

This essay argues that, in order to achieve the Paris Climate Agreement targets and Sustainable Development Goals, marginalized populations already affected by climate change must be consulted in policy and program development, and be empowered to serve as agents of change in their own communities. These steps will not only help mitigate the effects of climate change, but will also build social connectedness. The author explains that it is those communities already experiencing social isolation that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, which is only isolating them further. She describes the impact of extreme weather events and how they have already produced the world’s first “climate refugees”, including the people of Isle de Jean Charles off the coast of Louisiana and the Uru-Murato people in Bolivia. The greater spread of infectious diseases, aided by the warming global climate, is also mentioned as exacerbating social isolation.