C/O Travis Nguyen
Financial, distance and mental barriers exist in our return to in-person university
By: Ardena Bašić, Contributor
University life before COVID-19 feels like a distant dream. Never before have we associated campus life with daily MacChecks, proof of vaccination, social distancing and the infamous mute button on Zoom. Although there are aspects of in-person learning that both students and professors are yearning to get back to, there are also some that could be challenging and necessitate some changes in how higher learning operates.
For one, being on campus poses issues in terms of both accommodation and commute. Given that most leases start in the spring, when the winter semester is ending, many students did not have a chance to find accommodation well before McMaster University announced intentions for in-person learning for the fall 2021 and winter 2022 semesters.
Not only was this logistically difficult, but many students could also struggle in being able to fund full-year lease agreements. This is especially true given that the pandemic could shift at any time, rendering such accommodations as simply another setting for online learning. Although the university was cautious in waiting to announce what type of learning we could expect for this school year, it did not bode well for many considering the competitive and expensive nature of student housing.
In terms of a commute, classes occurring in person means that it will likely be longer than the time and distance from one’s bed to their desk. Although some students are located in Hamilton, they will still have to keep track of the bussing system or find a parking space on or near campus. Again, while both these options are generally feasible, they may pose challenges in terms of time-management and funding for many.
Another difficulty that could arise involves the coping mechanisms students have developed to ease anxiety during these unprecedented times. Although many services are once again being offered on campus — such as athletic facilities and clubs that focus on well-being — some are still being left online or are hard to come by. The Pulse, for example, requires bookings and minimizes the time one can spend in a single visit.
Struggling to book a space during high demand means that some people who have relied on exercise for their mental health may be left out. Of course, there are online options, but many students are tired of such an approach and are eager for in-person activities again. These barriers make it daunting for students to be optimistic about a normal, on-campus life like the one many had before the COVID-19 pandemic.
One more thing to consider is the stimulus shock that many students felt when coming back to campus for the first-time post pandemic. The sheer number of real-life people seemed intimidating after only seeing virtual faces for so long. Although students will likely acclimate to this after a period of time, it will only be exacerbated by the limited supply of coping mechanisms currently available. Although schools have to move gradually for everyone’s safety, it still comes with its caveats for students and anyone working on campus.
Given these logistical issues, educational institutions may have to work toward a revised version of on-campus learning rather than exactly what we had before. For example, giving students who rely on commuting or are struggling to find or pay for accommodations first choice during class scheduling. This will allow them to find the classes that work around their schedule and would be enhanced even further if classes continued to offer online completion options. Reductions in tuition for students who choose the latter should also be considered, since they would not be making as much of a use of campus facilities as those on campus.
Moreover, as it is safe to do so, schools should continue to expand their offerings and attempt to regain close to, if not exactly, as many programs as they had previously. Catering to the diverse range of student interests will ensure that there is something for everyone to relieve the stresses that come with being a student. In lieu of choosing whether programs should be fully online or fully in-person, live-streaming and recordings offer an alternative that would maximize accessibility.
Social acclimation will no doubt be the hardest step, as most of us have spent well over a year being limited in our contacts. However, as we increasingly get back to a new normal, we will be able to practice our flexibility and resiliency as humans to find comfort and appreciation in our environment again. Although the world around us is filled with uncertainty, the pandemic has taught us that we can definitely rely on our adaptability and constant yearning to change our surroundings for the better.
Program launched to allow current and former foster children opportunities to attend McMaster University tuition-free for undergraduate and graduate degrees
Although there are many benefits to receiving post-secondary education, many Canadians are not able to attend university or college, due to financial barriers. Current and former foster children are particularly underrepresented in Canadian post-secondary institutions.
McMaster University is attempting to address this inequality by setting aside 20 places for current and former foster children to attend university tuition-free, starting in the fall 2021 semester. This initiative has been launched in partnership with Child Welfare PAC, an organization that aims to support and uplift those who have been and are currently in foster care.
Associate Vice President (Students and Learning) and Dean of Students at McMaster University, Sean Van Koughnett, explained that many of the details of this initiative are still being decided, specifically regarding the fees that this initiative will cover.
“We’re trying to figure out how best to support these students,” Van Koughnett explained. “If they have an OSAP grant covering tuition, we want to find other ways to support them. We don’t want to just cut it off at tuition,” Van Koughnett added.
Jane Kovarikova, founder of Child Welfare PAC, explained the importance of post-secondary education in helping current and former foster children to thrive.
“We know, scientifically, that the only evidence-based pathway that levels life outcomes for foster children compared to their same-age peers is post-secondary credentials,” Kovarikova said.
According to Kovarikova, the idea to waive tuition fees for those who have been in foster care originated in British Columbia. Vancouver Island University implemented this program in 2013 and later reached out to Child Welfare PAC to make them aware of it. Since then, Child Welfare PAC has helped bring this initiative to post-secondary schools across the country.
Van Koughnett explained that McMaster announced a new access strategy in 2019 and has since been looking for ways to support students from underrepresented groups.
“We’re always trying to find ways to increase access. . . We felt that [this initiative] aligns perfectly with some of the other things we’re trying to do at the university,” Van Koughnett said.
According to Van Koughnett, this initiative will affect future McMaster students, as well as current students.
“There are a number of details that we still have to work out, but we have already had inquiries from current students who came through the [foster care] system, and we would like to support them as well,” Van Koughnett explained.
Giving more post-secondary opportunities to current and former foster children has the potential to benefit other underrepresented communities as well. For example, it may increase access among Indigenous students, as Indigenous children are overrepresented in the foster care system.
One important aspect of this initiative, as Kovarikova explained, is that it does not have any age restrictions.
“When you leave foster care at age 18, you face really difficult, traumatic circumstances. . . Life can be really complicated in the early years, so you might not be hitting the life milestones at the exact same time as your peers,” Kovarikova said.
In contrast, Kovarikova noted, most government programs aimed at this population will have an upper age limit. Further, according to Kovarikova, university policies are both more effective and more stable.
“When governments do this type of thing, they lose every four to eight years, so you have to fight for the policy again, whereas institutions are there permanently,” Kovarikova explained.
Though the institutional approach offers more permanency, the program is not yet widespread as each individual institution must adopt the program.
Kovarikova emphasized that even a small number of places, such as the 20 at McMaster, at each post-secondary institution available to current and former foster children will be extremely impactful.
“If every [school offers a few places], then the opportunities will be available everywhere, and no one will have to leave their community,” Kovarikova said.
McMaster’s move to eliminate tuition fees for current and former foster children will make it the eighth school in Ontario and the first school in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area to do so.
Further, Kovarikova explained that many participating institutions have only provided current and former foster children with tuition-free undergraduate-level opportunities.
However, McMaster has also provided them with the chance to attend graduate-level programs without tuition fees.
It’s scholarship season. If you’re like me, you probably spent a few days scouring Mosaic to find a list of awards to apply to, in hopes of receiving a subsidization of your degree, no matter how small. Many of McMaster University’s largest scholarships are merit-based, which strike me as odd; would it not be more beneficial to assist students demonstrating financial need?
A good example of such a merit-based scholarship is the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award, awarded annually to three undergraduate students and three graduate students. Recipients of this award, known as Wilson leaders, receive up to $25,000 and gain access to an incredibly exclusive leadership program, meant to connect them with other leaders.
If you are a Wilson leader, you are probably a bright and capable person and there is no denying that. But it is important that we interrogate what being a person of merit typically means and how other factors may affect someone’s ability to achieve that image of success.
A high grade point average and involvement in extracurricular activities often help someone win merit-based awards. But there are very obvious roadblocks that can hinder someone’s ability to achieve both, especially if they do not have financial support.
More often than not, lower-income students take on part-time jobs in order to pay for school, taking away valuable time that may otherwise be used to study or be involved in the community.
These students are still incredibly impressive; it is no small feat to finish a degree while also supporting yourself. Many students are also still engaged within their community, but in ways that cannot be put on a resume; running a babysitting ring in your neighbourhood, for example, does not have the same ring as volunteering for a daycare centre despite it being similar work. It just seems a little unfair to pit students who may not have the time nor resources to be involved with multiple clubs, maintain their GPA and live comfortably against those who do.
No matter how successful these students are, it can feel daunting to apply to major merit-based scholarships with the knowledge that someone without any financial barriers is also applying and was able to dedicate more time into resume-building activities.
This is not to say that wealthier students do not work hard and should not be offered any sort of award—we should just reconsider what that award should look like. This also is not meant to deride merit-based awards as a whole; people should absolutely be recognized for their hard work, no matter their financial situation. But it is worth considering how students would benefit if scholarships were restructured.
What if, for example, the Wilson Leader Scholarship offered their cash prize on a needs-based system, but offered the mentorship program to all those who receive it? A simple change would not only incentivize lower-income students to apply, but it would still preserve the program’s goal of recognizing student leaders.
Offering the title and its other benefits still recognize a student’s accomplishments but providing the monetary award on a need-be basis allows McMaster to support students with financial need. Imagine how much more a student leader could do if they were able to quit their shitty part-time job?
While it is important to recognize student merit in whatever shape it takes, McMaster should take a more formalized approach to support students who demonstrate financial need. Offering large scholarships on pure merit alone does not ensure that funds are being distributed equitably, and efforts should be made to mitigate that.
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By Elliot Fung
In L.R. Wilson Hall on Oct. 26, McMaster staff and students listened to presenters such as Peter Mascher, vice-provost (International Affairs), and Sean Van Koughnett, associate vice-president (Students and Learning) and dean of students, speak about the status of the “McMaster Model for Global Engagement” implemented in 2017.
The model’s key focus is global engagement with ethical principles and the enhancement of McMaster’s presence on the international stage. One of the problems identified in the strategy document was the absence of a centralized location where people can get information about McMaster’s global engagement strategy. One of the university’s goals is to create a hub-like structure to bring together various aspects of global engagement.
As such, on Oct. 26, McMaster launched MacGlobal, an online hub for information about activities, support, services, opportunities, news and events relating to McMaster’s global engagement. Debates on the possibility of a physical location for a global hub are being held as the logistics are being worked out.
The number of first-year international undergraduate students is growing every year. Van Koughnett reports that the number of international undergrad students will almost double in the next few years. As a result, McMaster is looking at introducing more support for international students.
This year, McMaster is already looking at an array of new programs for international students. The Ignite pre-Welcome Week program, a new English as second language support service, and smaller initiatives such as an airport welcome, help to support incoming international students as they make their transition to McMaster.
Concerning international recruitment, increasing attention is being placed on increasing quality and diversity of applicants. To achieve diversity, student recruitment is targeting specific countries such as China, India, United Arab Emirates, the United States and Turkey.
Another aim is to increase the number of international career opportunities for students and reduce financial barriers. McMaster’s involvement in university networks such as U21 and 20 United Nations University and partnerships with universities abroad will help to support collaborative programs such as joint PhDs and dual master’s degrees.
In addition, collaboration between universities gives way to opportunities such as McMaster’s partnership with a university in Rome to provide students access to the resources of a world-class institution for classical studies. In return, students from Rome will have access to McMaster’s resources.
Scholarships such as the McCall MacBain International Fellowship are being introduced to reduce financial barriers with respect to student mobility. The fellowship provides 10 McMaster students with $23,500 towards academic and work experience abroad.
Despite these shiny initiatives, McMaster currently offers no scholarships that only international students can apply for. This may act as a deterrent for international students who are dependent on foreign government funding, such as the students from Saudi Arabia who were forced to leave McMaster amid a diplomatic dispute in September.
For now, it seems that the university’s model is still in the process of developing the framework and structures needed to enable McMaster’s global engagement. However, more lasting changes are on their way as the university introduces more student mobility funding, new support for international students and the launch of MacGlobal.