An Interview with Eric Mezin, Director of the Council of Educators of Toronto
YouthREX recently launched a second Moving the Dial report on access to post-secondary, Bridging Programs: Pathways to Equity in Post-Secondary. In light of this launch, we sat down with Eric Mezin, Director of the Council of Educators of Toronto (CET) to hear his thoughts on access to post-secondary education (PSE) and to learn about the CET’s unique approach to addressing issues related to access.
Read on to learn more about CET’s valuable work, how you can join its Community of Practice, and about the diversity of access programs and initiatives that exist to enhance access to post-secondary education!
1. What is the Council of Educators of Toronto?
The CET is a 15-member network comprised of representatives from Toronto’s English and French language colleges, universities, school boards and the United Way Toronto & York Region. The vision of the CET is to enhance access to post-secondary for underserved youth in priority neighbourhoods and other areas in Toronto where need exists. We aim to support students to navigate both traditional and non-traditional pathways to post-secondary education.
CET’s major funders include the Ministry of Education, Ontario Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, and TD Bank Financial Group. Through TD Bank’s support, we recently redesigned and modernized our website, which includes searchable databases of Toronto access programs and PSE bursaries and scholarships, along with financial aid information and a virtual space dedicated to our Community of Practice.
2. Can you speak about the barriers some youth face when it comes to accessing post-secondary education?
Barriers include, but are definitely not limited to, the challenges that can arise due to: gender, race, lack of education, poverty, disability, violence, etc. The list goes on. These are barriers we all strive to fight, or at least mitigate, through the information we share, the services we provide and the opportunities we create.
It is important to understand that barriers can, and often do, intersect and combine to grow exponentially bigger.
For example, when it comes to financial barriers, cultural attitudes that view debt negatively only increase the likelihood of missed opportunities. Public education to help shift some of these attitudes is absolutely critical, which is why the CET is exploring new strategies to help inform and educate the public about the recent transformation of the OSAP program; the new Ontario Student Grant system will make PSE more affordable and more accessible for those who need financial help the most.
The CET is also approaching the issue of financial barriers to education from a research and policy perspective, thanks to a grant from the Laidlaw Foundation. Soon, we will release a new study about the ways in which various financial support programs sometimes intersect to unintentionally limit access to PSE. The study, for example, will explore scenarios in which OSAP and Ontario Works become mutually exclusive and act as a disincentive to PSE. The CET will ask: What could be done about it? How can we coordinate solutions across jurisdictions? What can be learned from other experiences? This research is particularly timely as it coincides with the transformation of the OSAP system.
The report will be posted in the upcoming weeks on our CET website: www.councilofeducators.ca
3. What are some of the ways access programs are addressing barriers to PSE?
There is a saying that goes something like:
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, soon, all problems start to look like nails”.
In other words, there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to problems, and certainly not when trying to promote access to PSE.
Access programs, in this context, are like a toolbox, as opposed to just a hammer. They offer a wide range of options – courses; mentorship; skills development opportunities; academic support; networking opportunities, transition programs and more.
Those interested in exploring these options can check out the diverse list of access to education programs listed on the CET website, which can be sorted according to institution or categories (i.e. “Aboriginal”, “First Generation”, “People with Disabilities” or “Pre-apprenticeship”, to name a few). You’ll find there are a lot to choose from!
4. What do educational and governmental institutions need to do better/more of to address these barriers to PSE?
There are three main levels of intervention:
- At the institution/individual level, access programs need to be integrated into the academic programs, in order to promote seamlessness and opportunities;
- Across institutions, cross-referrals and partnerships need to be encouraged, in order to expand the range of options offered to clients and to foster the scope of our community of practice; and
- As a network of educational institutions, we need to engage in a dialogue with policy makers and the research community in order to promote change across the system.
Additionally, I think PSE institutions need to continue opening their doors, promote diversity and also keep adapting and expanding the criteria used to measure success, with concepts such as “perseverance” or “resilience” for example.
Not coincidentally, the CET directly supports all three levels of interventions and provides a unique forum for strategic discussion to policy makers, both at the municipal and provincial levels. There are many more areas of intervention, but I will just mention one more: the way access to education is being defined, captured, evaluated and, ultimately, funded also has a direct impact on the programs offered. This is an ongoing, evolving dialogue.
5. How can navigating PSE – entering, leaving, re-entering – be made easier for students/potential students? How would you respond to the sentiment that some youth may feel PSE is ‘not for them’ given their perception of PSE?
There isn’t such a thing as ever “being done” with learning. Youth need to believe in their ability to go, or go back to PSE. The role of PSE institutions is to create the right conditions to make this belief a possibility for all.
The world of education has exploded in the last twenty years, creating new opportunities along the way. Learners can bridge from one field of study to the next, or from one institution to another. They can interrupt studies and resume them later; combine work experience with an academic program; learn “anytime, anywhere”. The PSE sector continues to adapt and evolve, which in turn, opens up more ways to access PSE.
“Post-secondary is possible” is the CET’s brand, and we passionately believe in what it stands for. However, it does not say, “Post-secondary is simple and easy”. It never is, and even less so for the youth facing barriers. For them, as you mentioned, PSE can be perceived as something “not for them” and out of reach. The CET and all of its members are working to change these perceptions, and to make our collective vision of PSE possible for all, and particularly for those who are marginalized, a reality. This begins with information and motivation; it continues with options and direction, and hopefully, it translates into action, progress, new perceptions about PSE institutions, about what is possible and, more importantly, new perceptions about oneself. This is our role and what we do, one youth at the time.
6. What do you see the role of community organizations and frontline youth workers in the context of access to PSE?
Community organizations and frontline youth workers are what make it all possible. Access to PSE begins with the bond of trust and respect created with each youth.
All the posters, programs and policies about access to PSE are all for naught until a youth is able to make that first connection that will give the “right information at the right time”; the motivation to apply; and the resources, skills and support necessary to complete the journey to PSE. Frontline youth workers are integral to creating these important connections.
7. Does the CET do any work to support the exchange of knowledge of PSE/access to PSE between youth workers and youth?
Definitely! Here at the CET, we see ourselves as knowledge-brokers and a catalyst for coordination and cross-referrals. Specifically, we support a community of practice of frontline youth workers by:
- Ensuring that front line youth workers have access to an online network of contacts, to make better and more effective cross-referrals on behalf of their clients;
- Working group sessions (the “Pods”), where members share information and effective practices and network among peers. We currently have five Pods themed around the following types of access programs: “Outreach & Engagement”, “Transitions”, “Academic Completion”, “Pre-Apprenticeship” and “Aboriginal”.
- Sharing news, resources (i.e.: Newsfeed; Program Evaluation Toolkit); and by
- Creating new partnership opportunities among programs and institutions.
I encourage frontline youth workers interested in not only learning more about access to PSE but also sharing their knowledge and experience working with youth to join our community of practice. This community of frontline staff, program managers, educators and experts, all dedicated to helping at-risk youth, is growing. As the community grows, so does our collective capacity to address barriers to PSE.
For anyone interested in learning more about our pods, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about the Council of Educators of Toronto here: www.councilofeducators.ca