A fighting chance

If you could ask students and alumni of the Transitional Year Programme (TYP) as children what they wanted to be when they grew up, you would likely get typical answers: a zoologist, boxer, dancer, or pediatrician. If you asked the same question to them as young adults, you’d get a very different answer: alive.

Since its inauguration in 1976, the TYP has been in place to assist adults without formal educational qualifications in building the foundation needed to successfully attain an undergraduate degree from the University of Toronto. The program, however, goes far beyond its written mandate. Behind the walls of 49 St. George Street, the central TYP office, there is a palpable sense of community and cooperation — the building is also a home, and a symbol of renewed confidence and access to opportunities.

“This place is special,” comments Michael, a TYP alumnus from 27 years ago. Michael still remembers his admission interview clearly. “I grew up thinking that I would never be anything… When they asked me why they should accept me, I said, ‘Just give me a chance, a chance to try.’” He went on to complete his Bachelor of Arts at U of T, and his Bachelor of Law at Osgoode Hall in York University.

“The program is completely inclusive. Here, all voices are relevant.”

Current TYP student Cheyenne is pursuing post-secondary education to provide a better life for her four-year-old son. She grew up in subsidized housing with a single mother and spent her teenage years living with whichever friend’s parents were kind enough to take her in.

“I realized that I was repeating the choices my mother made and decided I needed to make a change for my son’s sake,” she reflects. “This place is like a family. Everyone wants to help.”

This is especially true for the tight-knit community of single mothers: “Last year before an exam I couldn’t find a babysitter, and I knew I could leave my son here with the other moms and he would be safe,” said Cheyenne. She now aspires to become a film director.

Rehema, also a current student of the program, immigrated to Canada from Kenya four years ago to find work to support her family back home. With the help of the TYP, she hopes to someday return as a doctor to an orphanage at which she previously volunteered to help children born with HIV/AIDS.

Alumna Michelle Jarvis credits the program with changing her entire outlook on life: “The program is completely inclusive. Here, all voices are relevant.”

Shazali Samah, also an alumnus, agrees. To him, the program provides a space where students from marginalized backgrounds can pursue their dreams without fear of authority or feelings of inferiority. While Samah hopes to pursue law school, Jarvis, like many undergraduates, isn’t quite sure of her career path, but knows she wants to help people.

Helping others is a value emphasized and strengthened by the experience of studying through the TYP. Samah notes: “We’re very family-oriented. This place is a home for most of the students, and alumni come back because they want to support and give back to this place.”

TYP

This sense of home is what students and alumni now fear losing, as the U of T administration has proposed a merger of the TYP with the Faculty of Arts & Science. The move would entail relocating to Woodsworth College, which also houses the Academic Bridging Program.

The TYP Preservation Alliance (TYPPA) is a group dedicated to ensuring the program’s continued existence. Rather than contest the physical relocation of the program, the group is more concerned that the new space and the loss of autonomy will damage the integrity of the program and, by extension, its ability to support students in their goals. The TYPPA has several concerns about the proposed space at Woodsworth, including facility’s decreased size. This will impede alumni from visiting to the same extent that they have so far and prevent students from having drop-in access to faculty and advisors — the exact kind of support that is a hallmark of the program.

With rumours swirling that the TYP will be forced to move this December, there is growing anxiety among students who want a promise from the administration that their needs and voices will not be ignored.

“I’m concerned that the change isn’t what’s best for the program. The discussion [with the university administration] has been one-sided. There’s been a lot of talking with staff and no talking with students to hear their perspectives and needs,” said C.C., a program alumnus and active member of the TYPPA.

Michelle, a 2012 alumna, laughed as she described her sometimes difficult relationship with the program: “It was hard, but it was life-changing. This place became a home. The people here became family, and the support was what kept me on track.”

Michelle’s fear is that the program will eventually be phased out or amalgamated with the Academic Bridging Program: “Losing this program would mean a huge loss of knowledge, and it would silence so many distinct voices that deserve to be heard.”

“When I first got here, I was lost. I had people helping me, the older alumni, and that’s what has inspired me to give back,” adds Samah. He worries that the move will eliminate easy access to support from alumni and faculty, and compromise the unique nature of the program and the safe space it provides for students.

Samah expressed concern that if students lose the sanctuary the program currently provides, they may feel too overwhelmed to achieve their full potential: “It’s intimidating, coming here [to the downtown campus].”

For 37 years, the TYP has been, and continues to be, dedicated to supporting individuals who need the help in achieving their academic goals. More than its practical impact, the TYP has served as a boon for its students and alumni, providing an understanding, close community on the St. George campus.

Changes to the TYP, for better or for worse, seems inevitable. The move to eliminate the program, however, is unlikely to withstand the opposition of the strong cohort of students that testify to the impact of the program upon their lives. The TYP goes far beyond building academic foundations and supporting career aspirations. It rekindles students’ dreams and provides them with the hope that their aspirations can become reality. It gives people a home, a community, and a chance — and they are determined to fight to ensure that it will continue to exist and offer these same opportunities to incoming students in need.