On When a Fresh Coat of Paint Isn’t Enough
It was November 2015 and I was holding my last of a series of focus groups concerning a proposed rebrand of the former Work Study program (now Career Boost). The majority of questions I posed to this particular group of 12 students were primarily concerned with the cosmetic, about logos, marketing tag lines, and social media campaigns. After an hour of weighing in on colour and font choices, I’d reached the end of my formal questions and was already beginning to eye the door. Packing up my laptop and notebook, I half-heartedly asked the group if anyone had any questions or comments about the focus group or the program itself. Expecting little in terms of response to this question, as is usually the case, I was a bit surprised when two hands immediately shot up.
Self-identifying as a student with a disability, the first participant I called upon explained how the program’s eligibility requirements had forced them to enrol in more classes than they would have otherwise chosen to take on. Pursuing both an Arts degree and a Chang certificate, this student had to ensure they were considered a full-time student in both the Faculty of Arts and in the Chang school to meet the eligibility requirements of the Work Study program. To make matters worse, this student indicated that they were not alone in this experience and that they were aware of at least one student with a disability who had had their Work Study approval revoked because they had been unable to take on the number of courses required by the program to be considered a full-time student.
A student staff member of Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services, the second student I called upon, described an interaction they’d had with an Aboriginal student who had also been impeded from taking on a Work Study position because of the program’s eligibility requirements. In the case of this particular student, they were ineligible for the Ontario Student Assistance Program (a prerequisite for the Work Study program at the time) as they were receiving band funding to cover the cost of their tuition. While this band funding covered the cost of their courses, it did not cover the ancillary costs of pursuing a university degree, including their housing, transit, and daily incidentals. Despite receiving OSAP, this student clearly had unmet financial need and some of this financial burden could have been relieved via a paid Work Study position.
I mention this particular incident for a few reasons, not least of all being the fact that it exposed a number of deficiencies in the way we’d been determining a student’s eligibility for the Work Study program (that have since been corrected, I’m happy to report). But more critically, it made me question why we, as the stewards of this program, had taken so long to recognize what in retrospect look like rather glaring issues with the way we determine a student’s eligibility and unmet financial need.
So, how did we miss this? Following the redirection of provincial funding for university work-study programs in 2012, the Career Centre took over oversight of the program at Ryerson. In the first few years that followed, few changes were made to the Work Study program and we continued to administer the program along the eligibility requirements set by the Government of Ontario decades earlier.
While the Work-Study program remained largely the same in the years that followed, the Career Centre fundamentally changed the way we approach and deliver career education here at Ryerson. Concerned with better serving our students, we adopted a three pillar model of career education that brought our services in-Faculty and prioritized collaboration with campus partners and student groups. Perhaps most relevant to this story is our third pillar, which is concerned with meeting the personal and distinct needs of the students who come through our doors.
The changes to our service delivery model ushered in an era of considerable growth for the Career Centre, launching a number of new programs and initiatives and increasing the size of our staff team. But, amid the excitement that comes with starting something new, our existing programming remained largely untouched and unchanged. Save for an aesthetic makeover and a few tweaks to the administration of the program, the Work Study program was to remain largely the same.
At first glance, a blanket requirement that a student must be eligible for OSAP or be a full-time student to be permitted to participate in the Work Study program seemed like obvious and reasonable measures of a student’s unmet financial need and ability to take on the responsibility of a student staff position. To learn that our premiere work experience program remained inaccessible to two particular student populations via a marketing focus group illustrated just how clearly we’d missed the mark in ensuring all of our programming and services reflected our three pillars. Allowing the program to remain static and just accepting the status quo, an unknown number of students had missed out on a source of income and valuable work experiences.
As Student Affairs professionals, meeting the unique needs of individual students or particular student populations is an ongoing challenge we must continually strive to meet. While it can be easy to get caught up in the excitement that comes with working for an innovative institution like Ryerson, it’s important to not lose sight of the impact and reach of the work we do. If this incident has taught me anything, it’s that our programming and services require regular, sustained, and meaningful maintenance. Sometimes a fresh coat of paint just isn’t enough.
Truths & Aspirations: RyersonSA’s Critical Reflection on Past Failures and Future Growth is a week long series for #Canada150 in which RyersonSA members reflect on a way we may have let students down, what we learned from it, and how it will affect what we aspire to be in the future.