Advocating for education: local Grade 7 students invade York

In Grade 7, one would expect university to be the last thing on students’ minds. But in Jennifer Krikorian’s class at Albion Heights Junior Middle School – located in the economically strained area of Finch and Albion – postsecondary education has recently become a common topic of classroom discussion. Alongside mathematics, history, geography and English lessons, now come lessons on setting goals and planning for the future. 

Many of Krikorian’s students come from at-risk neighbourhoods, or are new Canadians unfamiliar with the educational resources and opportunities available to them. Krikorian hopes that by advocating for postsecondary education sooner rather than later, students will recognize the possibility for mobility and advancement, and gain the confidence they need to pursue studies after high school.

Right: Students from Albion Heights Junior Middle School embark on a tour of York’s Keele campus

This year, Krikorian had representatives from Skills Canada, a national, not-for-profit organization that promotes careers in skilled trades and technologies, visit her class, and staff from a nearby college came to talk to her students about options after high school. She worried, however, that students would not be formally introduced to universities for a few years and wondered if by then, for some, it might be too late.

Krikorian’s sister Jacqueline, a professor in Atkinson’s School of Public Policy &  Administration, suggested York somehow connect with the students. Jacqueline worked with Atkinson’s Student & Alumni Relations (STARS) Unit, and they partnered with various departments across campus in an effort to organize a full-day of events that would provide students with the “inside scoop” on what life at York University is really like.

Left: Professor Paul Delaney, director of the Division of Natural Science in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, takes questions from Grade 7 students during the group’s visit to the York University Observatory

On May 12, Krikorian and her students, along with another Grade 7 class from the same school, spent the day at York’s Keele campus. Students learned what programs they could take at York, and were surprised to discover they could study in non-traditional areas like Latin and Caribbean Studies, Space Science, International Development, Film, and Disaster & Emergency Management. They also heard firsthand from a panel of students about what it’s like to be in university – garnering information about financial aid, clubs and associations, residence life, professors and job opportunities. 

“The visit from Albion Heights was a wonderful opportunity for students,” said Carole Umaña, director of STARS and co-organizer of the day. “We wanted students to know that university is an option for them, regardless of economic status or other barriers. Many are unaware of the opportunities that exist for them, or fall victim to misconceptions about education being only for the privileged or those who can afford it. York is a very diverse and supportive institution, so bringing these Grade 7s to campus allowed us to extend our outreach efforts to a younger audience and gave them a ‘hands-on’ taste of university that will be more memorable than if we had just visited them at their school.”

“I think it was an eye opener for many of them, some of whom had never considered university,” said York’s Jacqueline Krikorian. “The students were struck by the variety of options available to them. They were quite excited at the prospect of going to university. Some told me they’d be back in a few years to see me when they came to York!”

Students also got a taste of campus life and York’s facilities through specialized sessions including a cultural/fine arts sculpture tour, a mini basketball clinic, and a visit to the observatory. Between sessions they checked out York Lanes and the Scott Library – and as their teacher notes, were “shocked to discover the size of the Keele campus.”

Though the event centered on York programs, resources and services, staff at the University talked to students about additional options, including pursuing education at other Ontario universities, attending college, considering a career in the trades or taking on an apprenticeship.

For many of the Grade 7s, attending York was an eye-opening experience. Most didn’t even realize that a university existed so close to their own backyards.

“My students are very excited about the opportunities available to them,” said Jennifer Krikorian. “They now believe that university may be an option for them. I am very grateful to everyone at York University who helped to arrange such an informative and fun-filled day.”