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Varun Vig – Pathways: From priority neighbourhood to postsecondary education

Photo of guest blogger Varun Vig

Guest blogger: Varun Vig

Postsecondary access has long been a research priority for HEQCO. Our current focus is on the participation of students from underrepresented groups. Following is a blog on the experiences and pathways of Torontonian Varun Vig.

Is accessing a higher education the same experience for all students, irrespective of socio-economic backgrounds? Considering my own experiences, I would suggest, no.

I was born and raised in the northwest part of Toronto called Jane-Finch, a community that has been identified as a priority neighbourhood but shares its space with one of Canada’s largest postsecondary institutions, York University.

Growing up, everyone in my immediate circle was ambitious, but somewhere in high school, we all went in different directions. You were either applying for a college/university or a job. For the most part, my close circle of peers almost immediately started to work after high school to assist with some of the financial responsibilities at home. Until this day, they have yet to attend higher education for an array of reasons.

I also kept in touch with those childhood peers who dropped out or were kicked out of high school. Many of them had lost their lives as a result of gun violence that ensued within the community. I should also mention that there were a select few who applied and got accepted into university with me. We were a small and rare bunch. Some of us dropped out of university, never to return, while others rejoined much later. I can recall six of us actually graduating. Regardless of which group you belong to, it almost seemed as if there were more important matters to attend to outside of school, especially coming from our community.

It was not until my last year of high school that I began to think about life after school. Many of my close friends were into making music, so I decided to embark on learning about film and video in university, to acquire the necessary skills and experience to one day direct their music videos. After pulling up my socks in my last year of high school, I was able to achieve Honor Roll, which propelled me into university. I chose to attend York University because it was within walking distance from my home, compared to the University of Toronto, which was much further away. Both schools would not accept me into their film and video programs because I lacked the experience, so when I got to university, I decided to enroll in accounting in a creative attempt to learn how to manage finances as a producer, and one day, produce my own films. I remember being alone through the whole application process as my guidance counselor seemed overwhelmed with assisting the needs of other students.

During my first two years of university, I excelled in all my classes, even though I had no prior experience in accounting. I was at school every day and I would often bump into my old childhood peers during the walks to school. There was this one particular peer, who I had caught up with after three years. He had not completed his high school diploma because he was criminally charged. He only had four more credits to complete but had already started a family. According to him, completing high school was too great a sacrifice to embrace for the short-term. Later on that evening, I learned that he was shot and killed, nearly steps away from where we last spoke. It would not be the last time I lost a childhood peer and as a result, my walks to and from school became a bit more difficult, especially after late night studying sessions in the library. In a span of six years, I lost more than 15 childhood peers to gun violence. I would usually stay at school until the early morning, just to get away from it all. In that same year, my mother was also laid off from her job and my father struggled with heart ailments. I decided to help out with the finances at home to alleviate some of the burden on my parents.

After a while, the responsibilities of my job began to interfere with my classes and studying time. My grades began to slip and with the income I was earning, my ability to access student financial assistance was limited. It was important to stay engaged at school, so that I could sustain momentum towards graduation and network with the same peers who entered the program with me, but I was unable to take a full course load.

I tried to seek help through my professors and other university staff, but was always told to consider de-enrolling and taking time off from school. Because of what was going on at home and in my neighbourhood at that time, it was certainly not a viable option for me. And the kind of job I was working at (car rental agency) was not going to be a long-term career for me. I soon found myself in the same position as my peers did during high school, where it seemed as if there were more important things happening outside of school, than in school itself.

At age 20, I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. Still, my ambition made me want to perform well in all my classes. I tried to get immediate feedback after each and every assignment and exam.  However, after a particular mid-term exam, the professor refused to provide me any feedback in time before the course drop deadline. While on my way out of his office, frustrated and ready to drop out of school, I was stopped by a counselor who overhead our whole conversation. She offered to help retrieve the necessary feedback to make an informed decision. At that moment, it was the first time that someone from the university actually reached out to me. We sat down, and also began to discuss all the other things that were happening outside of school, which were impacting my ability to give school my best effort. Over time, she registered me with her office, which advocated for students on academic and administrative matters, including assignment deadlines and exam scheduling, all in an attempt to help me regain my footing in school. She became one of my few and close friends at school.

Once things became more stable at home, I left my job. In return, my counselor helped me in finding other paid opportunities that were more in line with my interests. We found a summer position in the field of film and video, for which I applied and got on offer. For the first time, I would spend the summer working in downtown, Toronto, away from my community. It was a great experience because it exposed me to all kinds of different people from across the city in the field of film and video. After it had ended, however, I realized that the film and video field was more of a hobby than a career for me. On the advice of my counselor, I decided to switch programs and join the public policy and management program, which would ultimately, bring out my best abilities. Together, both my counselor and I created a detailed, two-year plan that would enable me to graduate.

I was enthusiastic and confident about my new program, and my counselor introduced me to a couple of practitioners and professors who were working inside the Jane-Finch community. Their work inspired me to get involved and soon enough, I was volunteering with two prominent organizations within the community. After understanding the power of linking school and outside interests, I found a practicum in my field of public policy and management. I met the grade point average pre-requisite and enrolled. Shortly after, I was working in one of those tall buildings I would always see downtown. My practicum with the Landlord and Tenant Board of Ontario (LTB) would be my first time in a professional environment. The supervisor was incredible in that he created an environment for me that made me feel comfortable enough to put forth my best work and to this day, he remains my close mentor and friend. After the practicum was finished, I was offered a job by the LTB and in addition, I received academic distinction for attaining one of the highest grade point averages upon graduation, completing school en route to a university degree. Everything was starting to pan out.

I was exposed to a wonderful and fast paced environment at the LTB. It is the foundation for much of the professional skills I possess today. I also started to make new kinds of friends at work. Still, during my employment with the LTB, I continued to keep up with my volunteer commitments after work by assisting high school students with their homework and guiding them in their applications for college and/or university. I was taken aback one evening, after learning about the death of one of the students I was assisting, who succumbed to injuries sustained during a physical struggle with the police in the community. The day after he died, I received a call from graduate school about an application I had submitted just months prior. They offered me an acceptance package and I knew it was a calling of some sort, especially considering how at one point, I never thought that I could complete my undergraduate degree.

In starting graduate school, my priority was no longer focused on earning an income, but rather developing myself through school to become somebody, as opposed to merely making money off of everybody. Once in graduate school, the transition proved to be different than what I expected because I had to adjust to a new counselor who was only accessible twice a year. Also, the income I was earning in my previous role, prevented me from being able to access student financial assistance, which in turn, prevented me from accessing additional academic resources. For the most part, I knew that I was on my own, but this time, because of my experience, it would be different. I began to research opportunities that would enhance my experience in graduate school and complement my classroom learning. It was after attending a human rights event that I was inspired to look for possible placements with the United Nations Secretariat. In particular, an expert from the United Nations led a discussion about human rights within Jane-Finch. I was so intrigued that my own neighborhood was being recognized on a global scale and had to be involved. Though the application for the UN was competitive, I had met all the pre-requisites as far as volunteer, work and graduate school experience.

It was the first time that I would visit New York City and move away from home. The money I saved through my graduate assistantship and work with the LTB enabled me to settle into the city and upon meeting my manager, who was an expert in the field of public policy and administration, I was immediately assigned three major responsibilities. It was the first time that I had taken on such projects, but after my internship was completed, I was offered the opportunity to stay longer in New York City. My extension required me to take a leave from school, but in doing so, I would work towards completing an entire project on citizen engagement and support my manager on his missions to various parts of the world. Through my travels with him, I got to meet an array of professionals and students from all across the globe. I got a greater sense of the world around me.

After completing my major assignments with the UN, I chose to come back to Toronto to complete my graduate degree. My time with the UN had enabled me to gain a whole new perspective about the role of local initiatives in the grand scheme of things. I again felt compelled to be involved with the efforts within my own community, but this time with a whole new lens. In particular, I joined a group called, Success Beyond Limits (SBL), which is located within the local high school in Jane-Finch. SBL provides a holistic approach towards the educational needs of its students, which can often times be impacted by the community’s broader socio-economic challenges. The rapport between students and SBL staff speaks for itself. The support services include advocacy to help build stronger relationships between students and teachers for the purposes of exceling within the classroom; hosting fun extra-curricular activities and events across the city; mobilizing complex resources for needs outside the classroom and in the community; and offering paid placement/co-ops opportunities for students.

SBL also offers the opportunity for incoming high school students to earn secondary credit through a creative curriculum at a summer camp located at York University and as well as consistent support during times of crises and emergencies in the community (for example, there have been four youth, all under the age of 16, who have died as a result of gun violence in the community). Like my own counselors, SBL has cultivated an environment that enables students to put forth their best efforts and maximize their potential through one-on-one attention.

My own story speaks to the value of co-ops and placements at an earlier age, which spark enthusiasm and curiosity that can be further explored through higher education. If students are unaware of the opportunities that exist outside of their own neighbourhood, how do we expect them to grow out of marginalized environments? And why not bring students to postsecondary settings at an earlier age so higher education is less intimidating to them?

But had it not been for the support I received during my undergraduate degree, which provided me with the safety net and tools to excel in school and placements, which led to jobs, I would not be writing this blog today. My counselors kept me engaged with school in the most difficult of times, while plugging me into a larger network of support to address other areas of my life. Their role within education should not be understated. With their help, I was not only able to realize my full potential, but attain it and then re-define it. Now I know that there are no limits.

-Varun Vig is completing his graduate studies at York University.

Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinion, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

9 replies on “Varun Vig – Pathways: From priority neighbourhood to postsecondary education”

An amazing story. Placements and Internships can go a long way, especially for the ambitious. I had the pleasure of working with many youth from similar backgrounds, who unfortunately, do not get to complete their schooling due to being overwhelmed by occurrences outside the school setting, or ‘settle’ for mediocre jobs, if they do graduate. The blog is also proof that money is certainly not a driver for all students from ‘priority neighbourhoods’, but rather, opportunity to be more than what they are often pigeonholed into. Growth is inevitable, but only if it can be fostered.

Varun,

Your words are inspirational, and your story is beautiful. You have overcome some difficulties, despite the odds, and I admire your tenacity and courage, and wish you all the best in whatever you do. Keep making me proud.

Knowing 15 peers that lost their lives to gun violence! Very alarming to say the least and to think, these are some of the issues facing young men, when they enter post-secondary education. Clearly, the issues to accessing and completing a higher education go far beyond socio-economic characteristics, and yet, this young man has found a way to overcome it with a little push and safety net. Kudos to HEQCO for bringing such a story to light and to this young man for staying focused amid some of the broader circumstances surrounding him. But really, how many stories like this will we really hear in the near future knowing that such consistent, one-on-one attention in both high schools and post-secondary levels are diminishing? Is there a real understanding of the issues surrounding students who come from such environments, once they enter university?

All students should have every reason to stay enrolled into school, and not feel overwhelmed by the world outside it, regardless of socio-economic circumstances. I agree in that more work should be focused on ensuring that such students stay enrolled into school because this is the result! Academia can play a major role in helping those from priority neighbourhoods cross over into the middle-class by establishing a safety net for priority students. To have 4 youth under the age of 16 die from gun violence in the Jane and Finch area this past year alone is very disheartening. It is almost as if these stories create the conditions for resilience among the younger generation of Canadians in spaces that are often over-looked by mainstream Canada.

Great to see my tax dollars at work for graduate students. After reading this story, I rather have somebody from the Jane and Finch represent my interests and Canada at the UN. Some of the hardest working families come from such neighbourhoods and at the same time access to higher paying jobs are becoming harder for these families i.e. Cancellation of LRT along Finch Ave., moving families from Toronto to other parts of the GTA, etc… Let’s get smart about Education because it has the opportunity to play a huge role in helping these students help their own families. Some of the issues impacting these students are deeper then we all think.

This is a telling depiction of the kind of struggles many people living in communities facing threats like crime and violence must deal with in their lives. You’re an inspiration to all Varun, I have never had to deal with so much pain in terms of losing close friends or people I personally knew to gun violence. Each and every one of them would be proud to see how far you’ve made it. Keep dreaming big my man.

The private sector bases their decisions on performance and credibility. It is important to build the confidence and necessary skills in these students at an earlier age. But with educational cuts at the high school level and reluctance to change outdated systems in school district boards, how can we expect students from low-income neighbourhoods to get ahead in today’s world, when they are participating in a system that needs many reforms? As a result, the kids from these neighbourhoods suffer and are busy playing catch up while in university/college. As an idea, placements and co-ops of quality, are an excellent tool to expose kids to the work environment, while enabling them to figure out what it is they really want out of a higher education, as opposed to just being thrown into it with little to no support. With the above noted example it sounds like practicums can be very useful. Let us ask, how many of these students have parents that are professionals? And how many of these students are the first in their family to attend a post-secondary education? Let us know our participants so that we can identify their needs, again, the role of counsellors.

Very glad to have read this article. There is education and then there is true education. Growing up for anyone of us is a kind of an education especially when harsh situations stir the soul, case in point. And many in these areas around the globe are forced to grow up quicker and mature faster which means they are unable to invest in long term assets such as a higher education due to short term responsibilities. I think this article answers how both school and personal life can go hand in hand because often those in tough situations do not have the ability to acquire skills in schooling because of overwhelming personal circumstances. The role of higher education has the potential expand across all sectors and services.

Varun, thanks for so bravely sharing your story. You might find comfort and inspiration in Wes Moore’s journey. After reading his book, The Other Wes Moore (http://theotherwesmoore.com/), I made a point of meeting him and that contact reinvigorated my activism toward equitable admissions policies in higher education. All best, Virginia

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