Opening high schoolers’ minds to the possibilities and opportunities afforded by a post-secondary education is the goal of the new Getting to Know YU program at York University, a Faculty of Education project spearheaded by course director Tisha Nelson.
“Getting to Know YU comes out of the ACE program, the York program that aims to enhance university access for Grade 12 students from local high schools in the Jane and Finch community,” said Nelson, an elementary school principal on secondment to York.
ACE brings Grade 12 students to campus each fall to complete both high school and university credits. Upon completing the program successfully, each student receives a university credit and is eligible for a bursary to York, depending on their course grades. They also participate in on-campus co-op placements to build their academic and life skills.
With the pandemic necessitating remote course delivery, the Faculty of Education consulted with high school students to see if it made sense to operate ACE remotely. Grade 10 and 11 students indicated that they were drawn to ACE by the on-campus experience, so virtual classes wouldn’t have the same impact. However, they said they still wanted to have a connection to York.
As a result of these consultations, Nelson came up with the idea of a program that showed teens how to prepare for post-secondary education, how to apply and what it is like to be a student, both academically and socially.
“With math now being de-streamed in Grade 9, we wanted to reach more students and give them information about the pathway to university,” Nelson said. “Why not reach ahead to help them explore university as an option so they don’t close those doors at 14?
“I’m committed to ensuring the barriers students face can be overcome so they can reach their full potential.”
Nelson met with guidance counsellors and staff from partner schools, who were all supportive of the idea, so in May, she decided to craft a program and “the action began.” She spoke with her associate dean to see if she could arrange for mentors, and it became a project for her third-year class, Experience, Inquire, Contribute: Systematic Observation and Context. The students helped build the program and, this term, they are serving as mentors and program co-ordinators. Nelson arranged for them to receive leadership training through Becoming YU, conscious that “mentorship is an intentional activity.”
Meanwhile, Nelson spent her summer doing the “Tour de YorkU” to recruit partners who would be happy to have students attend their virtual events.
The Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies hopped on board, as did others such as Glendon College and the faculties of Health, and Arts, Media, Performance & Design. The result is a full calendar of virtual opportunities available to Getting to Know YU participants.
“So many people rallied together to make this program happen for the students,” Nelson said. “It’s wonderful to see.”
Four partner schools are involved: Emery Collegiate Institute, George Harvey Collegiate Institute, James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School and Westview Secondary School. Nelson expected 100 student registrants, but 150 expressed an interest, and Nelson didn’t turn them away.
The project – which Nelson created in seven months, in addition to teaching -- had its official online launch Nov. 3 and will continue through March.
“Although the launch was held virtually on Zoom, the energy was palpable,” Nelson said. “The mentors made a video introducing themselves and we had icebreakers in breakout rooms and draws for York swag. I didn’t realize you could feel so invigorated by a conversation in a Zoom chat.”
Program participants are required to attend an online monthly mentorship session, as well as five events during the course of the program. Nelson is hoping that with the planned return to in-person classes in the winter term, Getting to Know YU will be able to bring the high schoolers to campus for in-person events and activities so they begin to picture themselves as potential post-secondary students.
“Although most of these students live nearby, 54 per cent of them have never been on campus,” she said.
Kelvin Mak, a third-year education student, is one of the mentorship co-ordinators for the program. He and his fellow co-ordinators created a curriculum for the mentorship sessions based partly on questions they had as high schoolers themselves.
“We want them to realize that the post-secondary pathway is open to them,” said Mak.
As the first in his own family to attend university, “I can relate to their struggles. I was lucky to have friends whose parents had attended university to guide me, but not everyone has that option, so if we can help them, it’s wonderful. It’s a way for me to pay it forward.”
The five monthly group mentorship sessions will each focus on a different theme: career paths, study skills, stress management and self care, particulars about life at York and building resilience.
“Each mentor gets a session handout from us and we give a group lesson to the students before going into breakout rooms. It’s exciting, because everyone has different insights.”
Josh DeBortoli, a student in the Education Studies BA program at York, is a member of the events co-ordinating team.
“Everything is still developing, but we already have a ton of activities planned,” he said. “We’ve just met with Athletics about an on-campus event and I’ve been talking to tons of clubs to see what they have available that our students can attend.
“It’s a great experience being around these kids and it will be fun to see their progress.”
Nelson is also delighted to see the program unfolding.
“I’m really excited, because it creates equitable access and is opening a door to an opportunity for students to be able to see themselves in places they haven’t imagined.”
Article by Elaine Smith, special contributing writer