The odds were stacked against U of T alum Jerry Mathew. Coming from a low-income family who was new to Canada, Mathew needed financial aid and guidance about university to succeed in his undergraduate and graduate studies at U of T.

Ultimately, Mathew graduated with a Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Rotman School of Management in 2019. Now, he wants to give back. 

Together with Professor Ann Armstrong ​​— who teaches organizational behaviour at U of T — and three other founders, Mathew founded Degrees for our Youth, a nonprofit organization that aims to make higher education more accessible for students from low-income families in Canada.

School-based awards and university mentors

Degrees for our Youth provides scholarship and mentorship to award recipients. Both components aim to help students from low-income families succeed in their undergraduate careers.

A Degrees for our Youth scholarship provides $5,000, which can cover almost a year’s worth of domestic tuition fees for an undergraduate program in Canada. In an interview with The Varsity, Mathew and Armstrong said the aim of this scholarship is to help students begin their first year of postsecondary education. Once students settle into school, they can then start getting the grants and other things that are necessary for success,” Armstrong said.

Degrees for our Youth scholarships are school-wide, which means that they are only open to students at high schools where the award has been established. For example, Degrees for our Youth has established the first award at St. Roch Catholic Secondary School in Brampton, meaning only St. Roch students can apply for it. By designing awards that are school-wide, Mathew hopes that students will be less intimidated to apply for them.

However, Armstrong noted, “It’s one thing to get money, but another thing just to be thrown into a university and not know how to proceed.” To ensure that students receive guidance at the postsecondary level, Degrees for our Youth also pairs recipients with a graduate who went to the same program or faculty that the recipient is interested in applying to.

Mathew and Armstrong said that there is a strong interest within their networks to donate to Degrees for our Youth and to provide mentorship. “We have a lot of friends who come from low-income families, who went to university, and now they’re well-off or established. And they’re looking for avenues to give back,” Mathew said.

A grassroots approach

Many students from low-income backgrounds do not apply for financial aid because they may think they are ineligible, or lack information on how to apply. To resolve these issues, Degrees for our Youth works directly with high school educators both to establish awards and to approach eligible students.

Mathew and Armstrong emphasized the significance of the community to their organization’s mission. They encourage donors to establish awards in the high schools they went to. “[If] you went to high school in Scarborough, you can be the point of contact and the champion for that school while you fundraise for that school and establish an award there,” Mathew explained.

In this way, Armstrong said that award recipients can “create a chain of uplift,” where they continually support one another, which she thinks would be a very powerful outcome. More than just uplifting student recipients, Degrees for our Youth also aims to uplift the communities which those students belong to. 

Many charities and nonprofit organizations in Canada also fail to be transparent with how they allocate their funding. This is why Degrees for our Youth guarantees that 95 per cent of their donations will go directly as scholarships to students, and publishes financial reports to prove their commitment to this promise.

Inclusive criteria

Scholarships often have restrictive eligibility requirements that prevent the majority of low-income students from accessing them. 

Degrees for our Youth seeks to address this issue: the only award criterion they have is that the recipient must come from a low-income family. A four-person family unit, for instance, would be considered low-income if they have around $50,000 or less in total family income after taxes, according to a 2019 Statistics Canada Report.

This means that, when selecting for award recipients, Degrees for our Youth will not necessarily consider grades or merit. Mathew explained, “When I was applying [for scholarships], academic achievement was a huge component in getting financial support… I have a lot of friends [from low-income families] who worked when they were in Grade 11 and Grade 12. The students who really do need help don’t have 90s and 80s.”

Armstrong said, “I think that there are very talented people whose grades are not going to be as high because they’re working two and three jobs to support their families.” These lived realities inform the award criterion at Degrees for our Youth, ensuring that students who need financial aid the most will be able to get the help.

Ultimately, Mathew emphasized that the students they are trying to help already want to go to university or are exploring the possibility of going. By giving them financial resources and mentorship, Degrees for our Youth “just [nudges] them to take that leap of faith.”

Degrees for our Youth is currently running a “Raise $5K in 2 Weeks for 1 School” fundraiser until mid-November, and will run a raffle for donors in December.