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‘A tool of exploration and discovery’: SEE U of T program has lasting impacts on students, faculty, community

By Perry King

March 4, 2020 

High school student Ola Olatunbosun says the SEE U of T program helped him find purpose (photo by Perry King). 

Ola Olatunbosun came into the SEE U of T program to pursue a course in computer science, and just computer science. But, he came out of it feeling differently.

The SEE program (an acronym for Support, Engage, Experience U of T), just completed its first cycle this past January. A collaboration between U of T and the Toronto District School Board, students from two high schools – Runnymede Collegiate Institute and Downsview Secondary School – got to take part in a semester-long course through Woodsworth College, co-op placements on campus and other experiential learning activities.

SEE U of T is the latest program in U of T’s slate of over 60 access programs – ones designed to lessen barriers for students from under-represented groups, including Indigenous and racialized students.

“The aim of the program is to encourage students who come from communities historically underrepresented at U of T and post-secondary institutions – to view post-secondary education as a viable destination,” says Cheryl Shook, Assistant Principal and Registrar at Woodsworth College. Shook collaborated with a team that includes Ann Lopez – the provostial advisor on access programs at U of T – and other colleagues from the TDSB and U of T to develop and execute the program.

For Lopez, the program has been “immensely” successful – from fostering new collaborations with the TDSB to having full support from principals, guidance counsellors and staff from Woodsworth College.

“From the community of people at Woodsworth College supporting these students to the guidance counselors getting the students to come to campus and be impacted – that’s success. Getting students to their core placements – that’s success,” said Lopez, an Associate Professor, Teaching Stream in OISE’s department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education. “Having these students get to the end of the program and get their credit – that’s success.”

“The SEE U of T Program confirms that learning for everyone is enhanced when these communities are represented in the classroom and are engaged on campus,” Shook added.

Olatunbasun was one of the first 30 students to take part this year and spent his co-op placement at OISE. The course he picked, called “Order and Disorder I: Issues and Perspectives,” was definitely not an interest of his, at first. The course explores issues pertaining to law, crime, warfare and justice.

“I was sitting there like ‘What am I doing in Order and Disorder? I don’t want to do anything with law,” he said. “But then we sat down with a teacher who explained to us what was going to happen and I ended up sticking with the course.

“Fun class and all, but my mind was still all computer science.”

His co-op supervisor, Karen Dinsdale, recalled his passion for computer science early on.

“We started talking one day and I said, ‘What do you want to do when you finish school?’ And he said, ‘I want to go to college and take computer science,’” she said.

She asked him why he wants to go to college instead of university. He said that three years is a quicker timeframe to get a job.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you do four years and do it at the University of Toronto?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, it’s too theoretical. It’s just too much,’” says Dinsdale.

With the help of Dinsdale, Olatunbasun found his way to a first-year computer science course (taught by senior lecturer Jennifer Campbell and Jonathan Calver, a Teaching Stream postdoc). Dinsdale, who works in the department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education, wanted to show him that U of T computer science was more than theory.

It was overwhelming at first being in a course with so many people – and learning the complicated syntax for the first time.

“If you’re sitting in the back, it’s kind of weird to be looking at everyone,” said Olatunbasun. But, he loved it.

Dinsdale and Olatunbasun met up later to talk about his experience and it was an eyeopener. “[I asked him], ‘So are you going to apply to U of T and major in computer science?’

“‘I don’t think I want to do computer science anymore,’” she recalled him saying. “‘Really? That’s so cool. What do you want to do?’ And he said ‘Linguistics!’”

She loved that she set off that “spark of discovery.”

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for a student who [may not] come to the university but as a tool of exploration and discovery,” she said.

SEE U of T will be back next fall, with Downsview and Runnymede schools taking part. In reflection, the team will revisit, review and revise components of the program structure in order to improve them. Lopez suggested that further supports may be added to the application process for students and TDSB staff.

“I would say that we’ve learned a lot in this first iteration of the program, and we’re going to be using the insights we have gained to really make the program better,” she said.

The biggest takeaway is that the program had an impact on the students.

“Students in the SEE U of T Program truly valued their experience in the classroom and on campus,” said Shook. “And, those of us privileged to work with these young people were inspired and enriched by the interactions and the relationships we built with them and the TDSB.”

For Olatunbasun, he learned new things in various subjects and better understands how to study and learn.

“My grades last year weren’t good at all,” he says. “I didn’t even know what I wanted to do. I was so lost.

“I guess I found a purpose [in the program] — something I actually wanted to do and something I was looking forward to,” he added. “And I was like [to myself], ‘Okay, to achieve my career goals, I need to do this.’”

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