“By teaching, we learn”

By Deven Das, Communications & Digital Marketing Assistant, Access Alliance
Sahar Bagheri (Nutrition student, Right), delivering a presentation on smoothies to a group of youth alongside her preceptor, Yousra Dabbouk (left).

As the Latin proverb Docendo discimus goes, “By teaching, we learn”, Access Alliance embraces student placements with the understanding that we gain as much from them as they do from us. 

The organization provides students with placements in a diverse range of disciplines, allowing them to enhance their field of study and apply the concepts and theories from their academic programs.

We interviewed five placement students and their supervisors, who take on the role of preceptor, across five unique programs at Access Alliance: (i) primary health care, (ii) mental health/ social work, (iii) food/ nutrition services, (iv) community programs, and (v) knowledge mobilization (KMb) & social action. We asked each pair to reflect on their experiences at each stage of the placement journey.

Early Stage of Placement – Establishing Learning Goals

Technical skills can easily be taught, but a strong willingness to learn is an essential ingredient for success. Although educational background is important to consider, it is only one small part of what makes a student successful in their placement. Accordingly, preceptors look for students who have a positive attitude. We heard that those who demonstrate an eagerness to collaborate, challenge themselves, present new ideas, and seek out opportunities for growth will get the most out of their time at Access Alliance. For example, Yousra Dabbouk (preceptor, Registered Dietitian) explained that she prioritizes communication style, professionalism and creativity when taking on a new student. Yeshi Dolma (preceptor, Registered Nurse) seeks out students who demonstrate a readiness to learn and an open-minded approach.

Yeshi Dolma (Registered Nurse, right), and her placement student Alisha Caldwell (left) working together in the west end AccessPoint on Jane clinic.

Many students we spoke to were drawn to Access Alliance because they saw an opportunity to welcome newcomers, improve community relationships and learn about the social determinants of health affecting Toronto’s newcomer, immigrant and refugee populations. 

“I found Access Alliance’s commitment to challenging systemic barriers and supporting community capacity to be of interest to me,” said Stephanie Thevarajah, a student who worked with Miranda Saroli (KMb and Social Action Coordinator). As a child of refugee parents, Stephanie was particularly drawn to the work of Access Alliance: “My family’s experiences and my passion led me to having a strong interest in advocating for newcomer populations and all populations who have been systemically made vulnerable.”

Student and preceptor faces shown in side-by-side Zoom screens
Stephanie Thevarajah (MSc. in Global Health student, left) did an exclusively virtual placement with preceptor Miranda Saroli (right)

Mid-Placement – Symbiosis 

A unique advantage of student-preceptor relationships is their symbiotic nature, by which each mutually benefits from the other’s knowledge and experience. As they become more familiar with their roles, students have the opportunity to truly shine.

We asked preceptors what value they see in bringing on students to support their work. Many shared that they appreciate the new ideas students bring to the table, as they regularly present new perspectives, question existing processes and identify areas of improvement, which ultimately strengthens workflow and services.

“I see students as an integral part of the work that I do. I see them as disruptors…but in a good way – when they are able to challenge not only my ways of thinking, but also the organization’s ways of doing things, I see that as a very positive thing,” shares Miranda Saroli (preceptor, KMb and Social Action Coordinator).

Sarah Hea (preceptor, Registered Social Worker/Therapist) says: “There are many values students bring to the workplace. They bring a fresh energy and enthusiasm that can be invigorating to the work.”

While placements primarily allow students to gain experience and field knowledge, they also serve as an opportunity to develop professional skills. With the guidance of their preceptors, the students we interviewed said they learned to be patient, resilient, determined, and proactive in their work.

We asked each of them to share their most valuable learning provided by their preceptor.

  • “…(I learned that) you’re a lifelong student and learner, not even the most experienced nurses know everything, and not to be too hard on myself,” said nursing student, Alisha Caldwell.
  • “A valuable learning I have gained from my preceptor is to be diligent and resilient,” said Sahar Bagheri (student, Food/ Nutrition Services).  
  • “…(I learned) the importance of being patient and determined to achieve goals, especially when met with criticism or opposing thought,” shared Vida Mirkovic, a student working alongside Marvin Macaraig in the Hijabs and Helmets, a community cycling program of Scarborough Cycles.
  • “I learned from Sarah the value of initiating and discovering learning opportunities as a constant investment in the self and others,” shared Christen Kong, a social work student who did a joint placement with Sarah Hea (Registered Social Worker/Therapist) and Axelle Janczur, the Executive Director of Access Alliance. “I remember when Sarah shared her story and journey as a social worker, I felt relieved to hear that so much learning occurs post-graduation and we won’t get it right the first time around.”

Christen told us she felt a deep eagerness to continue this work. After her placement, she successfully obtained a position of Health Promoter in the area of mental health. 

Colourful drawing of outline of two hands with different words written on each finger. On the left hand: love, family, learning, creativity and spirit. On the right hand: health, service, care, support, community
An art piece created  by one of the participants in Sarah and Christen’s Expressive Arts program

Within the organization, we do not look at failure as the opposite of success, but rather a First Attempt In Learning (F-A-I-L)

– Rania Younes, Senior Manager, National Network – Immigrant Employment Council of BC

End of Placement – On to New Beginnings

It is inevitable that throughout the duration of their placement, students will encounter many unexpected challenges. However, these challenges serve as valuable opportunities for learning and growth, which they can take with them in the next phase of their life or career. Preceptors play a crucial role in facilitating their student’s growth by helping to develop learning goals, seeking out new learning opportunities, and providing constructive feedback on a regular basis. 

Access Alliance’s students come from diverse learning backgrounds. As a result, each placement’s outcomes vary depending on the student’s goals.

Marvin Macaraig (preceptor, Health Promoter, Community programs) explains his approach with students, stating, “It is important to carefully listen and consider a student’s short and long term career goals. I spend time working with them to identify new opportunities that will help ensure success”.

By tailoring learning goals to each student, the preceptor can seek out more targeted and meaningful learning opportunities for them. 

Vida (University of Toronto student, left) and Marvin (preceptor, right) working to repair bikes at Scarborough Cycles.

Preceptors shared that fostering a healthy teaching and learning dynamic through strong and regular communication is vital to a student’s success in their role. Offering detailed constructive feedback supports students’ positive growth in a number of ways – not only does it identify areas of improvement, but it also builds confidence, clarifies expectations, and ensures learning goals are being achieved. 

We asked students what they would recommend to future placement students on how to get the most out of their placement. They advised that stepping outside of your comfort zone and regularly taking on new challenges drives your growth as an individual and leads you to discover more about yourself and your field of work. 

Sahar Bagheri (student, Food/ Nutrition Services), shared her specific advice for incoming students “…(to) always be open minded to the placement opportunities that come their way. Sometimes an area you dislike may turn out to be an area of great interest and passion.” She described how pushing these boundaries helped her to flourish: “Don’t choose the easy path in your placements simply because you can get away with it… use this time to challenge yourself and develop your capabilities. In your time doing your placements, you will actively be molded and structured into a new person, with new strengths, abilities, and skills.” 

Students also suggested immersing yourself in the organization and all it has to offer.

Stephanie Thevarajah (student, KMb & Social Action) stated, “I believe that truly connecting with clients as well as with your preceptor can allow for a more impactful and meaningful experience that stays with you well into your career.”

Clients are at the center of Access Alliance initiatives and also represent Toronto’s diverse communities. Therefore, building relationships with clients makes your experience as a student more enriching.

Similarly, Vida Mirkovic (student, Community programs) voices that she “would recommend that future placement students get involved in multiple events or programs at Access Alliance.” Events and programs present opportunities to make lasting connections within your placement, which can be extremely rewarding.

Access Alliance celebrates the work accomplished by students and preceptors. These collective efforts are integral to the work we do, and capture very well the organization’s core values of collaboration and continuous learning. As Access Alliances continues to take on students in the years ahead, students’ vibrant ideas and refreshing perspectives, when met with the thoughtful guidance of preceptors, cultivates continuous growth and learning within the organization.


If you are interested in becoming a placement student at Access Alliance, please check here for current opportunities. 

To learn more about the programs and services mentioned in this blog, please visit the following pages: