Students in York’s ACE program ponder the meaning of life

The Greek philosopher Plato once wrote about his discipline, "Wonder is the feeling of the philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder." Students from CW Jefferys Collegiate Institute and James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School enrolled in the Advanced Credit Experience (ACE) at York University are learning to appreciate this notion in particular, among the many ideas Plato has shared with the world.

The ACE program provides senior secondary school students with the opportunity to enroll in a first-year university credit course in philosophy at no cost while completing their high school diplomas. This year, for the first time, 14 CW Jefferys students along with 14 James Cardinal McGuigan students are among 420 York University students enrolled in PHIL1100, The Meaning of Life.

Last week, another 28 students, this time from two schools that have participated previously in the program – Westview Centennial and Emery Collegiate – attended the first lecture of the winter semester of PHIL1100. CW Jefferys, Westview Centennial and Emery Collegiate are part of the Toronto District School Board, while James Cardinal McGuigan is in the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

The ACE program is part of York’s Westview Partnership, designed to increase access to post secondary for students in the Jane-Finch community.

Right: Mike Harvey and Rico Persaud

"The high school students are totally integrated in the class and are treated like any other first year students," says Jackie Robinson, coordinator of the Westview Partnership, Faculty of Education. She says programs like ACE give students the opportunity to explore post-secondary options in a very real way. "The experience often changes their aspirations and increases the likelihood of their enrolling in university.".

For CW Jefferys’ student Rico Persaud, the program has had exactly that effect.

"ACE has been such an amazing experience for me," says Persaud.. "I never thought university was an option for me but now I know I can do it."

That kind of confidence is often what a student needs most to be successful. Persaud knows that a university workload can be demanding, but is more than willing to invest the time and effort now that he knows he’s capable of succeeding.

Persaud and his classmates are exploring some fundamental philosophical questions, such as:

· What is the meaning of (my) life?
· What is happiness, and how can I achieve it?
· What is wisdom?
· What is death, and what does it mean to me?

Besides Plato’s works, students also study readings from Epicurus, de Montaigne and a range of contemporary philosophers.

CW Jefferys’ course teacher Mike Harvey says that Persaud and the other students in the program are excited and enjoying the university experience, even though the program is very rigorous.

"In semester one alone, students have to take a Grade 12 course in addition to the university course and they also have to complete co-operative education placements at the university," says Harvey.

The students then return to CW Jeffreys in semester two to finish off their year.

While the preview of university life has students looking to the stars for inspiration and discovery, it can also serve to motivate students in the program, as well as their colleagues, to reach for the stars when considering their futures. Melanie Tennant, CW Jefferys program team leader, sees the ACE program and other similar initiatives having a direct impact on the choices students at the school are making for post high school graduation.

"We always have a very high number of students who apply for university, but programs like ACE have helped increase that number because they build confidence in those who are uncertain they can deal with university," says Tennant.

More than three-quarters of the school’s potential grads have requested the personal identification number required to apply to universities this year.

"And most of the balance will be applying for college," says Tennant.

If Plato’s musings and the university experience weren’t enough to inspire students to realize their potential, they also have a financial incentive. If students pull off an A in the philosophy course, they receive up to $6,000 towards tuition at York from the York University Faculty Association.

Tennant says she is already looking forward to graduation ceremonies to hear all about the programs that have accepted Jeffreys’ highly-motivated students for the following school year. Until then, she will simply have to look to the skies and wonder.

Submitted to YFile by the Toronto District School Board.