The faces of Ford’s OSAP cuts

Three members of the U of T community share their stories

The faces of Ford’s OSAP cuts

Back in January, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced large-scale changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). Notably, there were significant changes to grant-to-loan ratios, the defining guidelines of independent students, and the scrapping of the free tuition program for low-income students. The Varsity spoke to three members of the U of T community about the personal implication of these changes.

“Education is about liberation.”

Yasmin Owis, a first-year PhD student and research assistant at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at U of T, was confirmed to receive thousands of dollars worth of funding through OSAP in June. Two months later, her funding was recalculated to zero.

Thinking back on the completion of her first two degrees, Owis wrote that she had relied completely on OSAP to be able to afford her education. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to get this far.

Although as a full-time PhD student she receives a funding package from the university that covers tuition, the amount she receives doesn’t account for all the soaring costs of housing, food, and transportation that come with living in Toronto.

“I’m taking on extra work in an already stressful first year of doctoral studies to cover the funding I lost from OSAP and applying to as many scholarships, grants, and bursaries as I can,” Owis wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Among students and families impacted by the Ford adminstration’s drastic slash of OSAP funding, Owis’ story stands as one of thousands.

For many postsecondary students across Ontario entering the new school year, the prospect of funding their education has become an anxiety-driven scramble for financial security before their fees are due.

This anxiety began metastasizing in January, alongside Ford’s announcement. The previous Liberal government had implemented a program that offered affordable tuition to students whose families earn less than $50,000 a year. Coming into power early last year, Ford’s administration disagreed with the sustainability of such a program.

Their response was cutting postsecondary tuition by 10 per cent, reducing the qualifying threshold for funding from $175,000 to $140,000, and requiring students under the $50,000 threshold to take on loans in addition to grants.

“It pulls focus away from academics and completing your degree to the best of your ability,” Owis wrote.

Compared to others, Owis believes that she is one of the lucky ones. Many of her friends that are without funding packages are taking out lines of credit, moving back in with their parents, and balancing three jobs with their course load.

The mental costs of such a workload can be stark.

“If you’re someone like me, who has both mental and physical health barriers, OSAP cuts [mean] that I have less funds for medication and mental health services that [are] not covered by my health insurance,” wrote Owis. “Those who already face challenges [with] affording education are not spared.”

“Despite having worked two jobs — both full time — this summer, the money I saved won’t even help.”

Morgan Murray, a third-year student double majoring in English and Cinema Studies, with a minor in Creative Expression and Society at U of T, has been commuting from Cobourg to the downtown campus for the entirety of her undergraduate studies. She wrote to The Varsity that she and her parents agreed on the commute to cut down on costs, but now, even that won’t be enough.

“A major part of that decision was because I wanted to put all my energy into my studies and extracurriculars, rather than working [a job] after class or on weekends,” wrote Murray.

As she now faces losing thousands of dollars in OSAP funding, the mounting costs that she didn’t anticipate are another pile of responsibilities slammed on top of her textbooks. Her summer funds will be funnelled to her basic amenities, like transportation, food, and textbooks. Any potential for a layer of comfortable cushioning in her financial situation has all but dissipated.

“As I’ve become more educated from university, whether it’s from my classes or the life lessons learned in between, it is very apparent that many people in government are not concerned about their citizens being educated,” wrote Murray. “If they did, they would find ways to benefit the lives of students and help make an accessible way for all to attend, regardless of their background or family income.”

As a result of the OSAP changes, many postsecondary students find themselves in a ‘catch-22’ situation. With less support from the government, students need to compensate by dedicating more time to pursue scholarships or potential jobs.

However, the more time spent on these activities, the less time students have to focus on their courses, which detracts from their ability to achieve a higher GPA. This then lowers their chances to receive merit-based assistance like scholarships that would alleviate their need to work a job, which swallows up time and perpetuates the cycle.

“It seems the only thing you can do is work harder than before,” Murray wrote. “It’s going to be difficult to not constantly worry about finances, but just taking it one day at a time is the best way to get through this.”

“The next step is to definitely fight back.”

“My heart sank when Ford [made the] cuts.”

Ananya Banerjee, Assistant Professor and Interim Program Director at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has seen firsthand how the drop in OSAP funding has impacted many of her students.

“I had a number of our top applicants email me when they received an offer and saw the tuition cost of our program. Many simply said they couldn’t afford to enter our program as they didn’t get the OSAP amount [that] they needed,” Banerjee wrote to The Varsity.

Some applicants asked to be switched to part-time students so they could work on the side. “I noticed a high proportion of these top applicants were racialized and from low-income families,” wrote Banerjee. “Fewer individuals from marginalized communities will be entering our post-secondary education system, and those that do will spiral into severe debt in order to afford it, leading to a rise in mental health issues.”

Worries over losing a grip on postsecondary opportunities is shared amongst many. While the Ford government’s OSAP cuts impact different students in very different ways, one sentiment remains the same across each and every subject: a growing fear of the unknown.

“We have to commit as an academic institution to build a barrier-free and accessible education system until we have a change in government,” wrote Banerjee. “If we don’t, we are going to lose the brightest students who rightfully deserve to [be] part of the University of Toronto.”

“Our education is now a privilege.”

Fifth time’s the charm

Even at a university as academically rigorous as U of T, it’s still okay to take your time

Fifth time’s the charm

When I failed my driving test for the third time, I came home anxiously expecting a harsh lecture from my mother. I hadn’t completed this milestone in the expected timeframe like all the other kids my age, and so I braced myself for, at the very least, a disappointed look or sigh.

Instead she smiled and told me that I could just try again, and that there was no need to rush through. So instead of scrambling to pass before I was ready, I was encouraged by my mom to enjoy the process of learning to drive at my own pace. There was no point in simply matching other kids who earned their G2s on their first attempt with only 12 lessons under their belt.

I am currently preparing to graduate in November, having finished a degree that spanned five-and-a-quarter years of full-time and part-time course loads and a summer abroad. Upon reflection, I’m incredibly grateful that I took my time in university.

Like most university students, the way I initially approached school was anything but taking my time. All I was focused on was getting my degree in four years like everyone else, going on to do a Master’s degree in some field I’d eventually become passionate about, and get a good job somewhere… anywhere. I saw university as just a stepping stone to the rest of my life, which inevitably resulted in extremely busy course loads.

It was only during the middle of my third year — during a family crisis coupled with already poor mental health — that I realized how much I dreaded going to class, hated writing, and had stopped enjoying learning. I constantly thought about dropping out of university. I was lucky to have fantastic extracurriculars that kept me engaged at U of T, but I came to resent academia.

I started handing in assignments late, made excuses for missed lectures, and glossed over readings, barely absorbing any of the material. I sought help, but couldn’t muster up the energy to follow through with advice and accommodations. In fourth-year, I dropped to a part-time course load and felt like a failure for not graduating with the class of 2018.

Gradually, I moved past that shame and slowly found myself learning to enjoy school again. I asked questions in class, challenged peers in tutorials, and critically engaged with my readings and professors. Writing returned to me. After years of making excuses and telling myself I didn’t have enough time to go abroad, I finally finished my degree in Berlin, Germany, this summer.

This isn’t to say that finishing in four years is unrealistic. Nor is it to warn incoming first years that they’ll come to dislike school by following a planned four-year map. Rather, I’m telling you to not be afraid of slowing down if you need to.

I won’t deny that there’s a stigma attached to taking extra years to finish. Even shifting your course load to part-time simply for the sake of your own well-being can feel like a defeat.

But here’s a secret: there is nothing wrong with taking your time and enjoying university at your own pace.

University isn’t simply a stepping stone to your life. It’s a milestone, and milestones pass by in a blur no matter how long you take.

Ride it out. Make memories with people that matter. You’ve got your whole life waiting for you, so enjoy these fleeting university years.

I ended up getting my driver’s license on my fourth try, and the road ahead has never looked so bright.

Government think tank assessing education faces criticisms of questionable research methods, lack of transparency

“Now is the time to shut down HEQCO,” reads faculty coalition press release

Government think tank assessing education faces criticisms of questionable research methods, lack of transparency

A leadership crisis is currently wracking the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), a government agency that evaluates the postsecondary education system in Ontario. The high-level resignations of its board members and President Harvey Weingarten in August are giving rise to criticisms, which are further fuelled by earlier accusations of questionable research methods. 

In an August 20 press release, the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA), a non-profit organization that advocates for the interests of faculty in Ontario universities, called for the dissolution of the HEQCO, claiming “now is the time” as the organization currently has no president.

The OCUFA accused Weingarten of hypocrisy in his recommendations to cut pensions while he himself has a $4.5 million public pension fund. The HEQCO recently held a series of consultations where it suggested that faculty should not be able to collect a salary and pension at the same time, as well as encouraged faculty to retire at the age of 65 for cost-cutting purposes.

“They put out this ridiculous report in which they said that faculty salaries and pensions are one of the more critical issues facing the sector in postsecondary education in Ontario, without really even mentioning that Ontario has the lowest per capita per student and funding vis a vis GDP in the country,” said Michael Conlon, Executive Director of the OCUFA.

HEQCO’s Research Methods

In 2018, the HEQCO completed a series of studies which claimed that around 25 per cent of graduating postsecondary students in Ontario scored below “the minimum required for graduates to perform well in today’s work world.” The test aimed to measure “literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking,” looking specifically at whether graduates have the skills to succeed in the workplace.

University Affairs (UA) called the HEQCO’s skills assessments “a good example of cargo cult policy research,” meaning that their studies are not conducted according to the proper scientific method. UA criticized the HEQCO for using a non-representative study to support broad claims about the effectiveness of postsecondary education in Ontario.

As noted in The Globe and Mail, “students volunteered or were recruited for the studies, and therefore the sample was not random or representative; nor were the same students tested at the beginning and end of their schooling.”

“They’re in essence drawing really kind of political conclusions from their data, creating this kind of exaggerated sensibility around learning outcomes,” said Conlon.

The OCUFA also criticized the HEQCO for a lack of transparency regarding their relationship to the government. “We feel like they’ve essentially become more of a political organization, rather than an independent third-party policy think tank, which is what they were originally designed to do.”

Another of the OCUFA’s criticisms of the HEQCO is their support of the usage of performance metrics in postsecondary education. Ontario announced plans earlier this year to tie 60 per cent of provincial funding of universities to performance indicators by 2024–2025.

According to Conlon, performance metrics “really undermine the system because they set up these arbitrary artificial measures that really have absolutely nothing to do with quality or student experience.” Additionally, they “distract from the real problems with this system, which is underfunding, cuts to OSAP… [and] a variety of other real challenges.”

“I think what HEQCO sets up is this kind of illusion of an independent, transparent organization, which it’s not, it’s just an agency of government. So that’s why we’re calling for that $5 million to be put back into OSAP.”

The HEQCO has declined The Varsity’s request for comment at this time.

Faculty coalition says new performance-based provincial funding model will increase inequality

Funding model doesn’t encourage improvement, but will punish failure, says OUCC

Faculty coalition says new performance-based provincial funding model  will increase inequality

Since Doug Ford assumed the office of the Premier of Ontario last year, his government has made significant changes to education at all levels. One of these major changes arose in the Ford government’s first provincial budget: the decision to tie a large portion of the funding for universities and colleges to a set of performance indicators, as opposed to enrolment numbers.

In a public statement by the Ontario Universities and Colleges Coalition (OUCC), union and student leaders alike are pushing back on this move, claiming that it will “fundamentally compromise the integrity of Ontario’s higher education system.”

Renewed Strategic Mandate Agreement

The current Strategic Mandate Agreements (SMAs) between the provincial government and the province’s 45 publicly assisted postsecondary institutions will expire on March 31, 2020. SMAs are bilateral agreements that dictate how much the provincial government will provide in funding to these institutions over multi-year periods. While previous SMAs only tied a very small proportion of university funding to performance, the current Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities plans to increase that amount significantly.

By the 2024–2025 academic year, performance-based funding will increase incrementally from 1.4 per cent to 60 per cent in a move that Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities Ross Romano claims will make Ontario a “national leader in outcomes‐based funding.”

In a statement to The Varsity, Romano wrote that these SMA bilateral discussions with university and college leaders will begin this fall to determine the specific performance metrics. Under the expiring SMA, U of T’s performance metrics are currently tied to student experience, innovation, research impact, and access and equity.

OUCC Statement

The OUCC, a coalition which represents 435,000 postsecondary Ontario students, faculty, and staff, alongside the 11 other signatories of their public statement, oppose these changes categorically. They list it as yet another attack on Ontario’s postsecondary education system, following years of stagnant public funding and cuts to student financial assistance.

The signatories argue that withdrawing funding from universities and colleges who fail to reach their targets will not encourage improvement, but will actually “ensure institutions fall further behind.”

Among a long list of predictions for how this new approach to performance-based funding will affect education, the OUCC notably claims that it will give rise to increased inequalities across all universities and colleges. Particularly  it will hurt northern and smaller postsecondary institutions, accelerate the corporatization of campuses as private funding becomes increasingly important, and generally compromise the autonomy of Ontario’s schools. In terms of students, they argue it will decrease access to education for those who are marginalized, as admissions requirements will change to best accommodate new metrics.

In an email to The Varsity, Romano wrote that he is “dedicated to making Ontario’s postsecondary education system more competitive and better aligned with labour‐market needs, while operating transparently and efficiently.”

Contrarily, the OUCC claims that Ford’s changes will “do nothing to improve accountability, as Ontario’s universities and colleges already have comprehensive structures in place to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs they offer.”

Further, they argue that performance-based funding won’t improve labour market outcomes, as this system will prepare students for the labour market of today, but not for the one they will enter upon graduation. The statement’s signatories include Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students–Ontario, Felipe Nagata; President of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, Rahul Sapra; and President of the Ontario Federation of Labour, Chris Buckley, among others.

To preserve Indigenous languages, U of T must do better

Academic institutions must expand Indigenous language-learning opportunities in the face of endangerment and extinction

To preserve Indigenous languages,  U of T must do better

Over 188 years have passed since the first residential schools were established in Canada. Residential schools, a part of government- and church-sponsored policy, were built to undermine Indigenous identity in favor of the dominant white settler society. The repercussions of these schools are still felt by Indigenous people to this day. The intergenerational trauma of residential schooling remains a significant factor in the decline of Indigenous languages, as well as the health and well-being of Indigenous communities.

Indigenous language is integral to the preservation of culture and nationhood. As a result of residential schooling, Indigenous communities were left unable to safeguard their own languages and cultural identities. In fact, beyond the plethora of literature surrounding the psychological, physiological, and sociological implications that have taken hold, it is not uncommon to hear that those who have endured such practices still carry the burden — refusing to teach their children due to fear that they might endure a similar experience.

Until 1996, when the last residential school closed its doors in Punnichy, Saskatchewan, residential schools remained at the epicentre of the isolation, punishment, and assimilation into Euro-Canadian culture that the federal government imposed on Indigenous children.

Inside such schools, children — under the guise of educational policy — were removed from their communities and families and dissuaded from using their language and practising their culture. Furthermore, many of the more than 150,000 school children in residential schools were subjected to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.

According to a 2016 Canadian census, there are over 260,050 Indigenous language speakers in Canada — less than one per cent of the entire Canadian population. Further, there are reportedly over 70 distinct living Indigenous languages spoken in Canada according to the same census. Yet, only 15.6 per cent of Indigenous people can conduct a conversation in an Indigenous language, a drop from the 2006 census.

Language is at the root of culture and history. However, for Bonnie J. Maracle, Wolf Clan member of the Mohawk people and Professor of Language Revitalization at U of T, language is much more than that. “Language is our help, our unity, our strength,” she claimed.

For Indigenous people like Maracle, there is a clear unifying connection between language and the spiritual and natural environment around us. “Language is this healing and wellness,” Maracle said. “A whole generation of people had no language and culture, all as a result of residential schools… language has been holding on by a thread [ever since].”

This is not a problem unique to Canada. Indigenous languages and cultures are currently at risk of disappearing in all corners of the world.

This summer, three undergraduate students travelled to the city of Boa Vista, Brazil, as part of U of T’s Research Excursion Projects (REPs). With guidance from Suzi Lima, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the students were able to study several Indigenous languages in the region, including Macuxi, Ye’kwana, and Taurepang, alongside locals in order to further preservation efforts.

On the importance of their work in Brazil, Gregory Antono, a former Linguistics and Spanish double major now entering his graduate studies in U of T’s linguistics program, spoke on the politics around Brazil’s loss of Indigenous languages. According to Antono, official language status, colonization, and desire to adhere to the dominant culture are among the major factors contributing to this decline. Antono went on to say that, “It’s a race against time, for one. A lot of these languages have [very] few speakers left so if we — from different areas of the world — don’t work together, there is a chance we will not be able to do it at all in a few years.”

Documenting the language and history of Indigenous peoples is just one example of the work that we, as academics, institutions, and global citizens can do to help preserve cultures all over the world.

“I think we focus a lot on theoretical problems rather than the field, but we need more programs like the REP to learn about and communicate with these communities,” Antono continued. “As a student I’m torn between pursuing my academic interests but also in creating meaningful work [within] the community itself.” It is in this day and age of critically declining language diversity that impactful work like this is not only beneficial to both parties at hand, but necessary as well.

In June 2019, the Canadian Government passed the Indigenous Languages Act (ILA). Along with making attempts to adhere to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s Calls to Action, the Canadian government is to allocate $333.7 million over five years and $115.7 million per year thereafter to support the ILA’s implementation. While there has been a lot of debate regarding the government’s claim of co-development of this legislation in collaboration with Indigenous groups, this increase in expenditure will hopefully allow more language revitalization projects to come to fruition in the coming years.

Academic institutions must do more to preserve Indigenous languages in light of the current instability in this area. According to Professor Andrea Bear Nicholas, Maliseet from Nekwotkok, Tobique First Nation, who works at St. Thomas University, the situation is truly dire. “Unless we as a country give equal rights to Indigenous languages for the right to schooling in our languages, I think we will not be saving our languages,” she said in an interview with Global News Canada. “We have to make the next step, and that would be pre-school programs, that would be immersion programs, and guaranteed to any community that wants to start them. This is critical.”

Across Canada, academic institutions are starting to make spaces for Indigenous peoples to learn and thrive, offering course credits in Indigenous languages and cultural studies, and recruiting fluent speakers as administrators and educators. The Mohawk language has now joined Inuktitut and Anishinaabemowin in U of T’s language course offerings, at two levels of education.

However, two levels of language-learning seem hardly enough given that the norm for other languages offered at U of T, such as French and German, are offered at four, if not five levels. As Canada’s number one university, continually pushing the boundaries of education, should we really have to ask ourselves whether three offered Indigenous languages are enough?

We must provide both Indigenous people — a great number of whom now live outside of reserves — and non-Indigenous students with opportunities to learn via immersive education, beginning in our public school systems. This is necessary if we want to move forward in mutual understanding and resolution.

U of T is also now beginning to pair Indigenous studies education with departments and faculties like the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Law, and Dalla Lana School of Public Health. According to Professor Maracle, it is crucial for professionals to learn about, understand, and attempt to solve the domestic problems faced by Indigenous peoples within our country.

The TRC has called on universities to start developing partnerships with Indigenous communities. “I can see universities coming to [our communities] and not just providing a classroom for students to go [to universities],” Maracle said.

For Maracle, though there is already programming in these communities, the question becomes, “how can we as institutions help to accredit those programmings that are already existing?” Institutions like U of T must strengthen partnerships with Indigenous communities, especially given the barriers that exist for Indigenous students entering academic institutions.

“If there are people in the community that are getting accreditation,” says Maracle, “[then] at the very least they would have gotten some validation or accreditation for the work they are already doing in their own community.” Public institutions historically have not engaged Indigenous students as well as they have their non-Indigenous counterparts. We must make greater efforts towards recruiting Indigenous youths for postsecondary educational opportunities.

For many Indigenous people like Maracle, Canada is now closer than it has ever been. In her view, Canada’s acceptance of the TRC’s Calls to Action, and promise to follow up with further action — the ILA, for example — has set the tone for Canadians. “The acceptance of the TRC entirely changed the objectives of Canada,” she said. “It is now working toward changing the ongoing problems of colonialism by working together.”

“In the Indigenous sense you would really be helping if we could sit down and have a conversation about what we actually need.” Maracle concluded. “We need to communicate with Indigenous people [to see] what they need help with.”

After all, the key to the preservation of any language or culture is ensuring that dialects not only survive, but thrive. We must start to look at reconciliation efforts that do not result in the survival and continuation of Indigenous languages and cultures as little more than continued assimilation.

Conroy Gomes is a fourth-year Neuroscience and Biology student at New College.

U of T must fill in the gaps in its experiential learning programs

Access to work-integrated education is crucial

U of T must fill in the gaps in its experiential learning programs

At a panel discussion held at George Brown College Chef School on July 25, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, MP Navdeep Bains, delivered the details of the government’s plan to invest $17 million toward the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER). With the investment, the intention of which was to support experiential learning in universities, the Government of Canada has ensured that by 2029 “every young Canadian who wants a work-integrated learning opportunity can get one.”

Experiential learning, or work-integrated learning (WIL), such as co-op programs, internships, work-study programs, study abroad programs, or work placements, can be instrumental in helping students decide on future career paths. Providing students with a strong understanding of life in the workforce is imperative, which is why U of T must make a greater effort to provide its students with better WIL opportunities.

WIL focuses on helping students develop and acquire practical skills and work experience in their field before graduation. Helping students find a job in their field of study after graduation is essential.
U of T President Meric Gertler also spoke after the panel discussion, insisting that it is essential for U of T to expand its experiential learning opportunities, stating “we hear this every day from our students… they want this.”

U of T currently offers a variety of WIL opportunities for students. However, a closer look at these program offerings reveals that they may not be as equally accessible for everyone as one may hope.

Vicky Vo is a fourth-year student studying at UTSC who has taken both a co-op at UTSC and a work-study at UTSG as part of her degree in Neuroscience, French, and Biology. According to students like Vo, when it comes to gaining the right kind of hands-on experience for a future career, co-op is a better option for WIL than work-study.

“The co-op program at UTSC is the ultimate feature that made me choose the Scarborough campus over the St. George one, despite it being three times the commute time,” wrote Vo. “The biggest difference with my co-op experience was that I was not only able to gain new experience in a new field and work on my skills, I was also able to expand on my role, do many different tasks, and hold many different responsibilities.”

UTSG incorporates WIL in the form of internships, first-year programs, and work-study programs, which are offered to all students. However, UTSG has a limited amount of co-op opportunities, which means that students who attend UTSG are bereft of WIL opportunities that give additional “real life” work experience.

“Work-study is a good program, but I feel that it doesn’t give the intense experience of working outside the university,” wrote Oliver Phan, a fourth-year student studying computer science at UTSG. Phan took a work-study job over the summer. “I definitely think expanding co-op programs at UTSG would benefit students.

Getting caught up in only your studies is too easy at this campus (in any program) and I see it happen to a lot of my peers.”

Unfortunately, the majority of WIL opportunities at UTSG that offer students an “intense” off-campus, paid work experience, such as co-ops, are focused towards students in STEM programs. Students in the humanities or social sciences are offered opportunities to do work-study, internships, and other first-year programs to get a sense of what working in their field looks like. Most of these experiences are unpaid.

According to reports done over the past year by the Conference Board of Canada, students in the humanities are in the greatest need for WIL programs that teach students to apply their skills in a real work environment. It is becoming increasingly difficult for humanities students to find anything higher than an entry-level job after graduation.

However, the difficulty with co-op programs is the cost, which may deter many students from applying. Domestic students at UTSC taking co-op pay an additional $461 to $572 per semester if they apply in first year. Second-year applicants pay a higher price, and international students pay even more, up to $1,012 per semester.

The fees pay for classes, networking events, and job monitoring. Despite this, there are still students that end up with low-paying jobs, and therefore do not receive as much monetary return.

“It is a tedious cost, as the co-op courses that prepare you for your work term don’t really equate to that cost, when comparing to the quality of education you get for subject courses. It only kind of pays off when you’re actually working and you make money, but each job pays differently,” wrote Vo.

Another form of experiential learning that can be expanded upon is the Professional Experience Year (PEY), administered by the Engineering Career Centre at UTSG. PEY offers Engineering and Computer Science students the opportunity to experience 12 to 16 months of paid full-time work in their area of study after their second or third year.

One benefit of the program is that students don’t have to switch between study and work during the semester — a drawback of work-study — and the payback for the $975 tuition fee is comparably higher. Students in PEY in the 2018–2019 year earned an average of $49,308.42.

Another attribute of PEY is the range of locations in which jobs are offered, from Alberta to Belgium. This decreases competitiveness and expands job opportunities, which was highlighted in the BHER meeting as an essential mandate moving forward.

The PEY program has already expanded to include computer science students, showing promising results. Perhaps if the PEY program collaborated with other employers outside of STEM disciplines, U of T could offer all students the type of WIL they’ve been asking for.

In the modern, fast-paced technological age, students find WIL to be an increasingly crucial part of their university degree. But improving WIL is not just a matter of ensuring that every student gets access to a WIL opportunity. Effective WIL means that opportunities on every level of experience — in-class, research, off-campus, and commission-based — are integrated into a student’s learning experience, in a cost-effective, efficient manner, no matter the field of study.

In a world that is also rapidly expanding, across every discipline, it is essential that any student can access the tools that will help them contribute to the workforce, before real-life opportunities pass by.

Toryanse Blanchard is a second-year English, Environmental Biology, and Book and Media Studies student at New College.

What it means to be Out at School

U of T professor turns research project into play for Pride Month

What it means to be <i>Out at School</i>

The Nexus Lounge, located on the 12th floor of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) building, is intimate in size but offers breathtaking views of downtown Toronto. The room is encircled by large glass windows, which allow the sun to linger over the stage set in the middle of the space. In this setting, the stage itself feels closed off from the outside world, yet simultaneously above it.

At the Lounge, I recently viewed U of T Professor Tara Goldstein’s latest “performed ethnography,” titled Out at School and put on as part of Toronto Pride celebrations. According to promotional materials, Out at School is “a verbatim theatre piece based on interviews with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) families about their experiences in Ontario elementary and secondary schools.” 

The play took place on a hot Saturday evening in June, in the middle of Pride Month, and highlighted the narratives of 37 families interviewed by Goldstein’s team. This research project took the experiences of these families and wove them together into dramatized production, resulting in a story of hope.

When I first entered, the room was humming with the noise of multiple conversations amongst the various families, friends, and peers who had just finished watching the afternoon performance of the show. I was immediately struck by a feeling of familiarity and welcomeness ⁠— it felt as though I had stepped into a family gathering. Professor Goldstein and her partner tended to a table of refreshments and chatted with attendees, and I was immediately greeted with hugs and multiple offers to grab a snack. 

Following the show, I inevitably realized that this was exactly how Out at School is supposed to make you feel: as though you belong. And although I did not know many of the people in the room, I noticed that the audience was largely composed of large groups of families and friends of the performers, which made the show all the more intimate. 

Goldstein and her team successfully built a safe and positive space for all, regardless of background, and invited the audience to simply listen to what her research had to say. What really fascinated me was how this play was a product of the intersection between scholarship and creativity: a product of Goldstein’s own academic pursuits but expressed in a way that is easily digestible by anybody. As simply put in the program for the play, this was “where theatre meets research.”

This was an intentional and tactful choice. As Goldstein told me, the play “is what we call a verbatim play because we only use the words [from] the interviews [with LGBTQ+ families].” They, of course, edit and thematize the interviews in the process of adding music and images. Nevertheless, she explained that “Every single one of those words [was] spoken by one of our families.”

In highlighting the voices of real Ontario students and families, this play offered a refreshing addition to Toronto Pride ⁠— one made all the more political in light of Doug Ford’s cutbacks to the Ontario education budget and changes to the sex education curriculum.  

When they introduced the play, the directors explained that it was a “relaxed performance.” This was an apt description. It felt like listening to a friend talk rather than a staged event: there were no microphones, and the stage was empty, save for chairs arranged in a semicircle and a slide show behind the cast that displayed original artwork for each scene. This also made each scene feel like a support group.

Performers sharing their stories on stage. PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAR WELLS

I was fond of this idea because it reflected how personal the stories in the play really were, and emphasized that verbatim accounts were being used. Furthermore, the use of direct quotes from the interviews conducted in Goldstein’s research project powerfully conveyed the honesty and personality in the stories shared onstage. 

Out at School highlights the shortcomings of the Ontario education system in supporting LGBTQ+ students and families in a meaningful way. In an interview after the show, Goldstein explained how her research particularly reflects this. “We heard a lot of parents talk about making strategic decisions of when to come out or not,” she told me. “To be out means you can talk very directly with the school system about how to support your family. On the other hand, if you think you’re going to be rejected you may choose not to come out.” 

This means that the choice to come or not depends heavily on the school culture, which in turn is fostered by the educators and the curriculum they teach. For example, Goldstein explained, “We’ve had some students talk about how during elementary school everybody knew they came from a family with two mums, but when they changed to high school they would wait and see if there was a social cue that made it safe for them to talk about their family.” 

The stories I had the opportunity to hear were not just about hardship and pain, but resilience and advocacy. Although this kind of advocacy might work in small ways, the minute changes made can come together to make a real difference in the lives of many in the community. This is the message that Goldstein not only tries to convey in her writing, but also incorporates in her own way of teaching here at U of T. 

As she told me, “When you’re working with teachers, if you do this work with one teacher, you could have an impact, if they’re in elementary school, on 30 [students] and families, and if they are a secondary school teacher you could have an impact on 150 to 200 students and family lives.” She explained that although schools constitute the locus of her activism, she also wants “the issues to be talked about outside of schools and [her] own classroom.”

After all, she told me, that desire to reach a wider community informed their decision to stage the research project as a play, and is why they are considering putting the play on in Ontario schools. 

This demonstrates how the changes Goldstein and other LGBTQ+ advocates hope to see must begin with smaller, localized communities. Furthermore, safe spaces need to be a reflection of the population around us. From there, larger-scale reforms can be staged to make schools more comfortable places for everyone.

This is the kind of change Goldstein witnessed while teaching at U of T. When asked about the connections between the play and the university, she recalled the multiple progressive changes that have taken place at U of T in recent years. “I have watched the growth of the sexual diversity program at the U of T from the very beginning,” she told me.

“As the program grew and students started to join [it], they were the ones who advocated for more resources.” She smiled. “A number of people here today are looking out the windows of OISE, and noticed the Pride flag and the trans flag flying at Varsity Stadium; that meant a lot to people because they hadn’t realized U of T would celebrate Pride in that way ⁠— big and proud.”

“Big and proud” is the message of hope echoed at the very end of the play. Movingly, each member of the production stood up and said what they hope to see change in the future. A desire for change has been expressed in many different ways during the past few months, given the actions of the Ford government. With budget cuts that threaten the current education system, Goldstein highlighted the 2012 Accepting Schools Act as something more hopeful.

As she explained, “Despite Doug Ford’s ideas about curriculum, we still have the 2012 [Accepting] Schools Act, which requires all schools and all teachers to keep all kids safe.” Goldstein paused, then continued. “If that’s going to happen, we have to talk about LGBTQ+ lives.”

Disclosure: Hemrajani is a St. Michael’s College Director for the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU). 

Editor’s Note (July 30, 1:00 pm): This article has been updated to disclose the author’s affiliation with the UTSU. 

A different age

The stories and experiences of mature U of T students

A different age

It took me a while to decide to go back to university for a second degree. It wasn’t the exams or the countless hours of studying that made me hesitate. The financial cost, of course, had to be weighed in and managed, but what really made me nervous was wondering how I would feel about being an older student among mostly 20-year-olds.

After speaking to a few other mature students, whose ages ranged from the mid 30s to the early 70s, I realized that worrying about how to fit in among much younger peers is a common concern. But all the students I spoke with had come to terms with it, and were all happy that they decided to come back to school.

Mohsina, an undergraduate student in English and Film at UTSC, had one year of university-level education from Dubai when she came to Canada. Because of the difference in the education systems, she had to spend a year completing her high school education before her academic credits from abroad could be transferred. She says that she was initially hesitant about going back to school it wasn’t until her mom came to Canada, seven years after Mohsina, that she actually took the step.

“My mom came here in… 2012 and she was like ‘why don’t you finish your studies?… Come on, at least try.’”

Mohsina went to an adult high school and discovered that there were “so many students like me… I didn’t feel odd over there… But then when [my mom] started pushing me for university, I was like, that’s a whole different game… [but] then I realized it’s not that bad.”

Still, it took her a while to get used to university life. When she realized that some of her professors were around her age, Mohsina started to have doubts. She recalls asking herself, “they’re already done, what am I doing?”

This affected her studies because it made her “hesitant to study properly the first semester, and [she] wasn’t getting good grades.” She often felt like she didn’t belong, like she was behind. But in her second semester she started going to office hours. There Mohsina met a professor who boosted her confidence. “She told me there were professors here who started teaching in their 50s… and I think because of her I gained my confidence back.”

Another English student, Marlene, has taken classes since she retired seven years ago. “I am amazed by the brilliance of the young students in my midst,” she says. “They are always welcoming. It is especially comforting when group assignments are required… they always manage to include me.”

Mature student Marlene Colmer. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARLENE COLMER.

She recalls one course where a group assignment was an essential part. “I was concerned about being accepted into a group. After all I am 50 years older than many of the students.” She was relieved to discover how welcoming the other students were; she was able to make friends among the younger students. She especially noted a 19-year-old student who was so excited to have befriended Marlene that she called her boyfriend abroad to tell him she had a new friend who was 70 years old.  

Nancy, a student who is double majoring in Music & Culture and English, said that she enjoys being an older student. Speaking on starting university, she says that “I owned it, I let everybody know how old I was. But I also acted… like we were on the same level.”

She says that the key for her has been that she always “saw them as equals, but I owned my age so at times I would step back. If I was concerned about one of my younger classmates, or if I thought I could say something about my life experience that would help them, then I’d bring that in.”

She noticed that this is an attitude that many of her younger peer students seemed to appreciate. “Some of the young people, they’re the ones who come to me, they want my friendship, right? And I value that.”

Mature student Nancy Dutra. PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY DUTRA.

She thinks that a reason for this trend is that she takes note of students’ strengths and “[makes] a point of telling them, so when they need help either with an assignment or something in life, they come to me for advice, but then we can also joke… so in that moment, I’m the older person who’s like a mom or an aunt figure to them but at the same time I’m just like their friend.”

English professor Daniel Scott Tysdal has his own experience of being a mature student. He used the first three months of a sabbatical to complete an intensive master’s program in film at Ryerson University.

“I was super shy about it,” he says. “Among colleagues, among friends, among family. I just thought I have a career and I have a life and I have this path and it just seemed… people would think I was silly.”

Mature student and Professor Scott Tysdal. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCOTT TYSDAL.

Then when he did tell his friends and family, he found that most were supportive. Even at the department, his colleagues thought that it could be a great development also for the program that he teaches.

Still, coming to Ryerson, he felt self-conscious. “I was shyer than I was expecting to be, and I was much more self-conscious than I was expecting to be. Just that way when you imagine someone is looking at you and really no one even noticed that you’re there.”

Sometimes he would also feel self-conscious about his comfort levels when using certain technology, compared to some of his younger peers. “The instructor is showing it up on his screen and everyone’s moving along… and he’s a good teacher because he’s teaching at the level that really the most people in the class were at, but [I’m] still trying to find my files, right?”

But then he asked his classmates for help. One particular peer student ”basically just abandoned his assignment and sat with me and then… coached me along and helped me with that and it was really good because then he gave me more confidence.”

When I asked professor Tysdal why he wanted to do this program, he says “I always loved movies and writing movies, and then in grade eight graduation I got a video camera so I started making videos… I thought I was going to make… great horror movies, that was my dream.”

As an undergrad, he struggled with mental health problems and wasn’t able to pursue a major in film, but ended up focusing on poetry.

“It was always in the back of my head… I would still love to try something to do with film. I felt like, what am I going to regret when I’m… 70 or 80, what will be that thing that I’m [thinking] I wish I had done.”

For Nancy, it was a bit different. “I always knew what I wanted to do, but none of the majors fit exactly, and so I ended up working and I enjoyed the things I was doing. But then when I had my first child, I found that I couldn’t continue performing music, that’s what I had done for a number of years, because it meant late nights and then early mornings with my child, and I just couldn’t do it… So what I did was I started looking into programs.”

Marlene, on the other hand, has mainly focused her life on family and a career as a teacher, but discovered she wanted to continue educating herself. She initially started taking evening classes to improve her teaching skills.

“Then in the 80s I met a former high school friend who was taking university courses and she encouraged me to take night courses with her.” Eventually, Marlene had to give up the night courses because of other commitments.

Things changed, though, when she retired from work. “I have had the honour of having the love and support of a wonderful husband and remarkable mother-in-law all through my career. Before my mother-in-law died at age 96, I promised her that when I retired I would return to university. I retired in June 2012 at age 65, and I returned to the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto in September 2012.”

When asked what she likes best about studying, Nancy says “just having the opportunity to listen to music, to explore music, to talk about music… It was hard in the beginning because I had been out of school for so long. But I worked hard and eventually with time it just became part of my new life.”

“I’m surprised by how much I love speaking with my professors. I thought I would be intimidated, but I’m not.”

In her first year, Nancy didn’t speak much with the professors. “I really was just acclimatizing to the student experience. But in my second year I started to ask questions even in the larger classes. It really was just about the work so once I got over that initial… culture shock of being in school… if I wanted to learn something I just put up my hand and asked the question.”

She also found that the other students around her were helpful. “Especially in my first year, I would just ask the young people around me how things worked. I didn’t even know how basic things worked in the school… so I really just asked people. I said ‘sorry, this might be an embarrassing question, but how does ‘x’ work?’”

After her undergraduate degree, Nancy plans to continue on to grad school. “I like it so much. I don’t want to stop the conversations with the professors. I’m learning and, yeah, I’m a nerd.”

Mohsina also plans to go on to grad school. Mohsina advises any prospective mature students to “definitely… go for it. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or not.”

Professor Tysdal reasons similarly. “I don’t think you’re going to regret it… For me, I don’t think I could have regretted it because it worked a way I couldn’t even have dreamed it would, it was perfect. I now teach things I learned there and I make things I learned there. But the other thing that could have happened is I could have done it and [discovered] this is not for me… But at least then I would have known that… Otherwise you can just go on wondering and then suddenly maybe it’s too late. I would say definitely, I don’t think you can regret it.”

Summarizing her university experience, Marlene says, “I love learning. I love meeting and encouraging students. I love the fact that I am old enough to be the mother of any of the professors I have met.” She adds, “People my age ask me what my goals are. These courses are too late to add to a pay scale and I don’t care about a certificate. I do care about challenging myself and continuing to learn as long as I am able.”