University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Reality Knocks

The educational system may have given up on them, but these students never gave up on education. The Transitional Year Programme helped them achieve their dreams

It’s 1968, and Martin Luther King has just been assassinated. Keren Brathwaite, a graduate student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE/UT), changes her plans to return to her native Antigua to pursue a career and life there. She determines, in her own way, to continue King’s civil rights work. She also determines that there are too few African-Canadian students and faculty in Canadian universities.

In the summer of 1969, in a small community centre on Bathurst Street in Toronto, Brathwaite and York University student Horace Campbell tutor seven young African Canadians. They are preparing the high-school dropouts for university. It’s a pilot project, a test. Campbell had asked York University to open its doors to more minority students; York said, bring us qualified applicants. That fall, York accepts five of their students.

A year later, the summer project moves to U of T and becomes the year-long, access-to-education Transitional Year Programme (TYP), with Keren Brathwaite as a founding member and Jack Dimond as its director. U of T guarantees acceptance to anyone who passes the program with an average of 65 per cent or better. TYP broadens its mandate to include Native Canadians, new Canadians, single parents, the working class, indeed, any adult who – because of racism, poverty, family difficulties, medical issues or other circumstances – does not have the proper qualifications for university admission.

The program opens the door to anyone who has a dream of a university education and the will to achieve it.

Debbie Innes, 37, grew up in Sudbury, Ont., and was adopted into a white, middle-class family with four children. She is black. She was streamed out of the academic curriculum and into the general program in high school, but she didn’t think she was smart enough to go to university, anyway. She heard the racial taunts and believed them. Innes completed TYP in 2001 and also won a Bank of Montreal National Scholarship for admission to U of T. (Other scholarships available to TYP students include the National Scholar Scholarships and the Graduate Achievement Awards.)

Mohamed Abdulle, 31, had a pretty clear reason for leaving high school: civil war. His family fled Somalia – one brother to Sweden, his mother and five of his seven siblings to Egypt. He and his sister and father – a judge – landed in Toronto. Abdulle worked two warehouse jobs to put his father and sister through college, and to send money to his mother and siblings. Six years on, he figured his future was shipping and receiving. A truck driver told him, “No, no, no. Don’t stay here. Go back to school.” During his TYP year in 1998, he wrote an essay about the impact of the civil war on his family, which was subsequently published in The Globe and Mail. He will graduate with an honours degree in history and political science this fall.

For Nicole Tanguay, 41, a Cree woman, high school ended when she was forced to leave her foster home on Vancouver Island. She moved to Toronto and worked a series of jobs educating First Nations people and marginalized women on how to manage a small business. Still, she couldn’t move into the management jobs she sought. She finally applied to TYP. She won a National Scholarship to U of T, and is now in third year of an honours bachelor’s program in Aboriginal studies, drama and English. Last summer, she worked for the Bank of Montreal on diversity issues.

It took John Cox three years to tell his story to fellow students in his semiotics program at U of T. He had been a lobster fisherman for 10 years and hated it. He came to Toronto for a job that didn’t pan out. On his 35th birthday, with no money and no job, he found himself standing on a dock at Toronto’s Harbourfront, looking for options. He saw an advertisement for TYP and applied that same day. He wouldn’t tell this story to students outside TYP because he was embarrassed about his age, 37. “Who’s gonna hire someone that old?” he thought. Media giant Rogers Communications hired him last summer, to work in special promotions for the magazine Today’s Parent.

Tyler Burgess quit school at 16. He started working in a factory during the days and drumming for a rock band at night. This spring, almost two decades later, Burgess will finish an honours BA in history at U of T. After completing TYP in 1999, he won a prestigious $10,000-a-year, four-year Bank of Montreal National Scholarship. He was one of 15 selected from 700 nominated scholars from across Canada.

“It’s like a soap opera here,” says Marilli Martyn, TYP secretary, herself a graduate of TYP in 1986 and U of T in 1990, with a degree in English and drama. “They have the same tragic, horrible things happen to them, but they’re not rich.”

The students also lack something else, other than money, when they start TYP: confidence. “They were all knocked out of the educational system for a variety of reasons,” says program director Rona Abramovitch. “Once you’re knocked out, your sense of being able to navigate the system is seriously in question. You have got the message that you’re not smart enough, or whatever. You really have to go against the stream, to say, ‘I can do this.’”

Abramovitch adds that the TYP requirements can also be intimidating at first. During the year, students are required to upgrade academically at a university-level pace, as well as achieve 60 per cent in one-and-a-half university courses and a 65 per cent average overall. Some enter with only Grade 10. “It’s university-level curriculum designed to fill in the gaps students have,” says Abramovitch. “There’s lots of one-on-one attention and it’s very intensive.” In another, complementary program administered by TYP, Steps to University, capable secondary-school students who are disadvantaged by economic, family or personal circumstances are encouraged to enrol in a University of Toronto course (Introduction to Sociology) while they’re finishing high school. This earns them a credit toward an undergraduate degree if they pass and, as a further incentive, gives them the opportunity to attend a number of on-campus events and lectures.

On Tyler Burgess’s first day as a university student – at U of T! Amazing! – he wanted to leave as soon as he arrived on campus. He wanted to leave halfway through orientation day. He wanted to leave after he wrote a math test to determine his level and got stuck on the first question. He says the panicky feeling of wanting to run stayed with him for a month.

Correct that. Sometimes he still feels it, even as he finishes his BA. “It would have been so easy to pack it up and leave, but I couldn’t let myself quit,” says Burgess. “Then I started meeting other people [in TYP] who felt the same way. They had doubts. There was a lot of camaraderie and support, and it became a really close-knit community. Then it was like, I’d be letting everyone down if I quit. Then I started getting good grades, and that was encouraging.”

Mohamed Abdulle found his confidence in composition classes with Keren Brathwaite. She teaches works that speak to her students’ experiences: novels by Native Canadian women, African-American men, Caribbean women and former TYP students such as Makeda Silvera, author of two short-story collections and a novel. She encourages students to write about themselves. “We locate the curriculum in their own experience and we challenge them to use their experience toward expanding education,” says Brathwaite, now TYP associate director and English co-ordinator. “We explain why voice is important, why their voice has not been heard and how important it is to use their voice.” Abdulle says: “She told us that people who write about themselves write better. I related my human-nature course to the civil war in Somalia. All the courses were reflections on my own life. I wanted to write more and more.”

And then there’s the work. Like most who enter, Nicole Tanguay had a Grade 11 education but considered herself illiterate. John Cox had a Grade 12 diploma (he took general-level courses), but found the TYP year tougher than his first year in university. “You have to make the transition to going back to school, and you’re under the gun to get accepted,” says Cox. “The competition is really tough. Everyone has something to prove. Everyone wants an A, and U of T doesn’t just give out As. I usually started at 10 every day and did homework every evening and Saturdays and Sundays. By nine or 10 at night I’m totally cooked…but they prepare you really well.”

There are the inevitable meltdowns. After her TYP year, and in her first year of university, Debbie Innes was feeling overwhelmed by some of the reading material for her women’s studies course. She was reading the essay, but nothing was making sense. She was thinking she would never get through the course. As the night wore on, she worked herself into a panic.

Then she called her academic adviser, Maureen FitzGerald (BA 1964 Victoria), at home. FitzGerald, who teaches at TYP and University College, broke down the terrible monster. Read the first paragraph, read the last paragraph, find the thesis. Relax – it’s just an essay. “I never believed in myself, that I could do well,” Innes says. “It became like a self-fulfilling prophecy. None of my [earlier] teachers were willing to work with me, to build up my confidence. Here, they just always believed in us, that we could do it. They believe for you until you’re ready to believe for yourself.”

Success stories
TYP staff tell them all the time. Between 60 and 80 per cent of TYP students pass and continue on to U of T. But it’s the specific stories that reverberate: TYP graduates who have become teachers, lawyers and business people. Sometimes knowing that others have made it is the shot of inspiration you need to push you on, says Mohamed Abdulle. His mentor, Bakary Gibba, was a construction worker removing asbestos from Sidney Smith Hall in 1992 when he found out about TYP. Now he’s completing a PhD in history at U of T. His thesis is on the slave trade in his native Gambia.

Tyler Burgess returns each year to mentor new TYP students on an informal basis. “Some people kind of feel embarrassed about how they got into U of T, so they stay away from it after they finish, but I never feel that way. I always feel really grounded there…. There are some things I can’t talk about anywhere else. Like, modifying your speech at school. It’s an academic language. For me, it’s a foreign language. It’s false, compared to the way I usually talk. Some of the young black guys really identify with that…. I seem to always end up talking to the ones who are really upset. I give them the same advice [previous TYP alumni] gave me: ‘It’s all going to work out. Don’t panic. Do things one day at a time.’”

After finally finding their voices in TYP, students are often quick to apply them. At U of T, Nicole Tanguay worked on a race and ethnocultural equity conference committee, and also worked with several arts groups as an adviser, organizer and performance artist. Mohamed Abdulle was part of a group of Somali students who attended the United Nations Millennium Summit in New York City. “This program is like an oasis,” says Abdulle. “It’s like a fertile place in the middle of nowhere for people like us. A TYP student said that once. I agree.”

Carol Couchie (TYP 1989/90), who became the first Aboriginal licensed midwife in Canada, returned to speak at a TYP awards ceremony. “Nine years ago, I was a frightened, angry, hurt single mother,” she said. “I have come to you to speak about respect, power and the power of change…. When a baby is born, the universe is changed. When a student enters U of T, the student is changed, but more importantly, the university is changed.”

Tyler Burgess did not come to university to get a job. “I wanted an education,” he says. “I wanted to learn about history and philosophy. But my friends and family couldn’t understand that. They didn’t go to university. They thought it was some scheme I cooked up to get out of working…. But the world has expanded for me. Most people, they get locked into this really small reality: work, their boss, buying stuff.”

Still, now he is thinking about a job, perhaps teaching high school. He believes he might be able to connect with troubled students and help them to stay on track and in school. “Maybe it’s useful to hear it from people who experienced certain things,” he says. “Maybe it gives you credibility to talk about that stuff.”

Mohamed Abdulle is considering law school or graduate school. His marks are average, but he isn’t worried that they will hold him back. “TYP gave us this chance,” he says. “That’s all we need. I know I can find a way to succeed.”

Nicole Tanguay wants to create an artist-run Aboriginal arts centre in Toronto, bringing theatre, music, literature and visual arts all under one roof. “That’s at least 10 years down the road,” she says, then reconsiders. “Well, maybe it won’t take that long.”

John Cox wants to put the theory of semiotics into practice, somehow. He wants to help change the school system, to change prevailing cultural narratives, to change attitudes. “Semiotics is about how societies communicate and how people communicate with each other,” he says. He wants to prevent his story from happening to others. “I got streamed into the general program. My dad’s a fisherman, the teachers think I’m going to fish. It’s totally unfair…. You should never tell a kid he can’t do something. It builds a stigma he lives with his whole life…. There’s got to be some purpose to it all, why I was on that dock and ended up here.”

Debbie Innes doesn’t know what she wants to do, but she knows one thing now. She’s confident she can get there. “I’m really focused now. It’s like a harmonic conversion. You feel you’re part of a greater vision. Something clicks into place. And you realize, ‘Yes, this is the path I’m supposed to be taking.’”

In 1998, OISE/UT awarded Keren Brathwaite its prestigious Distinguished Educator Award. In 1999, the U of T Alumni Association presented her with the Ludwik and Estelle Jus Memorial Human Rights Prize. Still, she’s not satisfied. “We need a comprehensive approach to access in the university,” she says. “We need other measures to get at the inequities in our entire education system. TYP is just one small program.”

In her OISE acceptance speech, Brathwaite said, “I support excellence in education, but I believe that it must be accessible education, not the domain of the privileged…. We must learn from all of life’s classrooms.”

Margaret Webb (BA 1985 UC) is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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