Dismantling barriers: High school students experience U of T Mississauga via program for Black youth

SEE UTM graduate Onyinyechi Oluikpe shows off her certificate during the Support, Engage, Experience University of Toronto Mississauga program's celebration and graduation event (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Abby-Gayle Isadora Allen and Trevon Nwaozor share the opinions of many first-year students when asked what it feels like to attend University of Toronto Mississauga:


“We can do anything we put our mind to.”

“We’re not alone…we have support.”

“I can do this.”

But Allen and Nwaozor aren’t typical T Mississauga students – at least not yet. They’re seniors in high school who recently took part in Support, Engage, Experience University of Toronto Mississauga, an innovative program that makes university education more accessible to Black youth who are underrepresented at Canada’s post-secondary schools.

Developed with the Peel District School Board and piloted this past fall, it allowed students in Grade 11 and 12 to earn a university half credit and two Ontario Secondary School Diploma credits, have a co-op experience and be mentored by a senior U of T undergraduate student while simultaneously completing their high school semester.

“The goal is for these students to not only experience the institution, but to see that they are capable of learning here,” says program co-facilitator Jessica Silver, director of student engagement in the Centre for Student Engagement. “When we talk about access, we’re actually talking about the ability to change someone’s ability to attend post-secondary … changing the trajectory of their life.”

Such programs are critical to advancing equity in a society where persistent racial discrimination and systemic socioeconomic barriers continue to adversely affect the participation of Black Canadians in higher education. Statistics Canada data shows that Black youth are less likely than their counterparts to have a post-secondary certificate, diploma or degree.

Abby-Gayle Isadora Allen dances beside Juno Award-winning singer Liberty Silver during the SEE UTM celebration and graduation (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn) 

To help address this disparity, U of T introduced SEE U of T, the inaugural version of this access program, four years ago in collaboration with the Toronto District School Board. Operating in Woodsworth College on the St. George campus, the program has served multiple cohorts of senior students from two high schools in the city. A similar program is in place at U of T Scarborough. 

Keen to apply the program at U of T Mississauga and build on the campus’s existing efforts to smooth the pathway to university for Black high school students, Silver partnered with Emily Mancuso in Student Recruitment & Admissions to create a customized version for U of T Mississauga that includes a dedicated academic adviser and the co-operation of numerous campus units.

“UTM is committed to inclusion and ensuring we’re providing access to Black students in their pursuit of post-secondary education,” says Mancuso, associate registrar and director of student recruitment and admissions. “We’re dedicated to dismantling barriers that hold anyone from reaching their full potential.”

Trevon Nwaozor gives a presentation during the SEE UTM celebration and graduation held on Jan. 18 (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn) 

Allen and Nwaozor were among 22 participants from Fletcher’s Meadow Secondary School and Meadowvale Secondary School who participated in the pilot program. The Peel school board provided them with public transit fare or a chartered bus and money to buy lunch on campus. U of T Mississauga, meanwhile, offered students the opportunity to experience academic and campus life, along with supports.

The students took part in the interdisciplinary foundations course called “Critical Thinking for STEM Learning” through the Institute for the Study of University Pedagogy, with U of T Mississauga covering tuition and book fees. There, they learned how STEM subjects intersect with society, history, politics, equity, environment and culture. To help them with their studies, they could turn to their mentor, their teaching assistant or a facilitated study group.

“You learn how to manage your workload…and how to communicate if you’re falling behind,” Allen says.

For her co-op placement, Allen served as a program assistant in the Centre for Student Engagement, where she was involved in analyzing the SEE UTM program, conducting research and identifying ways to improve future iterations. Meanwhile, Nwaozor’s placement aligned with his interests in social justice and political science. As a programming assistant in the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Office, he helped identify gaps in inclusion on campus and contributed a post to the office’s Twitter account on Martin Luther King Day.

“It gave me a glimpse of what it could look like to work on campus while being at school,” Nwaozor says.

Workshops focused on areas such as discovering your strengths, managing personal finances and adapting to the post-secondary environment. The students were also exposed to U of T Mississauga’s wide range of services and facilities, and were provided with a student card to use across campus.

Allen and Nwaozor say the one-on-one mentoring they each received from a third- or fourth-year student was a highlight. Over 20 hours spread across bi-weekly half-hour sessions, the pair were able to learn first-hand about the highlights and challenges of being a university student.

“It’s almost like having an older sibling…they support you and give you ideas and tips,” Allen says.

SEE UTM graduates Giovanni Williams and Josephine Tzogas take a photo with their certificates during the program's celebration (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Tobi Mohammed was a mentor in the SEE UTM program as well as the teaching assistant for their course. The fourth-year biology for health sciences student helped participants tackle skills such as time management, learning how to apply to university and creating LinkedIn profiles.

Mohammed says that she wishes she could have been part of a similar program for Black students upon entering university. Helping other Black youth navigate university is inherently rewarding, she adds, and her way of helping to make higher education more inclusive.

“We talked about their ambitions and goals, their personal struggles. We talked about everything. We cried together,” Mohammed says. “I get to help set these students up for success, while helping to diversify post-secondary education.”

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