Springboard to success

Creating equitable access to education


""As a Faculty, we strive to embrace diverse perspectives, abilities, approaches and experiences in building an inclusive community for education and research. We are committed to recognizing and respecting lived experiences, historic and contemporary, especially relating to Indigenous persons, while eliminating barriers for all in our greater community.  - From the Faculty’s Strategic Plan 2020-25

Here’s how one alumnus is living this value:

Education is seen as a springboard to individual and national success, but Sue Gillespie is well aware that some young people must leap over much higher barriers than others.

Sue Gillespie.Gillespie (MA ’92, Gerontology) is president and chief executive officer at Pathways to Education Canada, a charitable public-private partnership program that fosters equity in education so that young people can finish high school and achieve their full potential.

The barriers come in a variety of forms. Students may lack access to computers and the internet at home. Some need to work to help support their families. Some teenagers are from refugee or new immigrant families that face language barriers. Some are Indigenous students from remote communities and must move away from their families to attend schools in urban centres.

Pathways tries to connect with these students as soon as they enter high school. “We make sure that we intervene early and get them connected to the supports they need,” Gillespie says.

That might involve one-on-one tutoring with the help of volunteers, or something tangible like a laptop or bus tickets to attend an after-school program. “Little things can make a big difference,” Gillespie says.

After getting her undergraduate degree in psychology at Brock University, Gillespie got into the Master of Gerontology program at Waterloo. Gillespie says she has always been more broadly interested in social determinants of health and well-being. “My interest was in how to remove barriers so everyone can live healthier lives.”

Prior to joining Pathways in 2015, she was executive director at Carizon Family and Community Services in Kitchener, one of the local Pathways partners. There, Gillespie became deeply impressed with what Pathways was doing for youth.

The organization has more than 1,400 volunteers across the country who do tutoring and mentoring. “We have many amazing volunteers from the University of Waterloo,” Gillespie adds.

Amplified by the pandemic

All of the barriers to education were amplified by the pandemic, Gillespie says. When schools and libraries shut down, “the digital divide became our most pressing barrier.” The organization scrambled to get laptops for the students. For students who don’t have high speed internet at home, “we have been developing a low bandwidth video conferencing platform that they can access with their phones.”

Pathways also provided care packages for families of students that depended on school breakfast programs. But the biggest challenge during the pandemic was isolation. The volunteers worked harder to reach out to individual students at home to offer mentoring and support so students wouldn’t think about dropping out.

Pathways supports about 6,000 students in 20 program locations across Canada. The vast majority of students stay in the program throughout high school. About 76 per cent of them finish high school and 71 per cent go on to post-secondary education immediately after high school.

Pathways celebrates their graduations. “The students do the work. They do the heavy lifting,” Gillespie says. “We just remove the barriers.”

Equity in education is important not just for individuals, but also the country as a whole, Gillespie says. “If we want to have a thriving economy and change the world, then we need all of our young people to be successful and realize their full potential.”