York’s Bridging Program celebrates its success after 30 years

When York’s Bridging Program for women wanting to upgrade their skills to get into university held its first class 30 years ago, the 25 women who came out to the library in the Jane/Finch area were taught short stories by Alice Munro – stories they could relate to. It is what founder and retired York University Professor Shelagh Wilkinson (BA ’68, Hon. LLD ’09) called a “roaring success”, as 15 of those students went on to attend York.

Shelagh WilkinsonRight: Shelagh Wilkinson

Not much has changed. Sometimes it’s a hockey rink in Newmarket or a basement at the recreation centre. “We go where the women are, in their space, where they feel confident and safe,” says Andrea O’Reilly, Bridging Program coordinator. They are women who for the most part enter the program not having finished high school and they are anywhere from 21 to 70 years old.

On Sunday, the Women’s Studies Bridging Program will celebrate the accomplishments and successes of three decades of supporting, teaching and encouraging women to reach for their dreams. In addition to a talk by Wilkinson, five program graduates will tell their stories, while a sixth, York sociology student Jennifer Edwards, will perform two songs. Of the five speakers, all have gone on to attend York – Agnes Wadham (BSW ’06) is studying for her master’s degree in social work at York, Adrienne Ryder is in a bachelor degree program in humanities, Valerie Thomas (BA Hons.’02 and MA ’10) received two degrees, Kathleen Alison is working toward a bachelor’s degree through the Faculty of Health and Vanessa MacDonald (BA ’10), with one degree down, is now eyeing law school with a view to tackling mental health issues.

“I’m living more fully now. I think I would be missing a whole layer of my life without the Bridging Program,” says MacDonald. Her self-esteem and perception of herself improved. In the course of the program, and later doing her bachelor’s degree, she realized what she was capable of and what was available to her. MacDonald finished high school in Toronto, but then moved to the small community of Ravenna, near Collingwood, where several generations of her farming family lived. Work was piecemeal – the front desk of a ski resort, at a restaurant and as a supervisor for youth/child workers. She realized quickly that her views did not always line up with those in her community and felt unable to express herself. Going to York changed all that. “It was the first glimpse that I could express myself,” she says.

Andrea O'ReillyLeft: Andrea O’Reilly

The program, says O’Reilly, who has taught in it for 13 years, is just as relevant now as it was when in started it 1981. “You’d think with some 50 per cent of today’s undergrads being women that it wouldn’t be needed, but a lot of women are still derailed from attaining a university education,” she says. “A lot of women come and feel they don’t have a right to a university education. They’re terrified. I can’t believe how terrified they are. Their father or boss or husband has told them they’re stupid and could never make it.”

But what O’Reilly sees is just the opposite. “The transformation is phenomenal,” she says. And the ironic thing is that once they get into university “they’re the smartest, most engaged students.” To them a university education is a gift.

The 13-week program, founded in 1981, attracts a truly diverse group of women, more than 2,000 in its history, and the majority of them pursue postsecondary education, many of them at York. And they don’t stop there. Even if they don’t go to university after, O’Reilly says, “The confidence and empowerment they gain is huge.” The women are taught everything from how to write an essay to critical thinking skills, and they are given a tour of York’s Keele campus to increase their comfort level. What isn’t taught, but develops anyway, are lifelong friendships. Five of the women who attended a class O’Reilly taught in 1998 still get together.

MacDonald was also surprised by the camaraderie that developed between the women. “Suddenly, there was this inner circle I was invited into,” she says. She first learned about the Bridging Program from an advertisement in the Alliston newspaper, and travelled from Collingwood to Barrie to attend classes.

“It really does change women’s lives for so little money,” says O’Reilly. “My frustration is we can’t offer more than three courses a year because there isn’t more funding. I could easily fill seven or eight a year. There’s a huge need out there.” Many of the women go on to a waiting list until the next program is offered.

For more information about the Bridging Program, visit the School of Women’s Studies Bridging Program website or contact Celeta Irvin, undergraduate program assistant in the School of Women’s Studies, at cirvin@yorku.ca. or ext. 77818.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer