At 27, James Lao didn’t think he’d get a second chance to pursue a postsecondary education.
Lao had attended community college after high school. While he enjoyed his classes, like many first-year students he got involved in a lot of extracurricular activities and left after one term due to severe stress and anxiety.
“I had too much going on,” said Lao, who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. “I didn’t know how to manage stress, and I didn’t know how to slow things down. I had my first episode of mental illness and I had to recuperate because I was just burned out.”
Lao sought help and was able to recover with the aid of the Trellis First Step Program, a mental health support initiative.
Through volunteer work in the community Lao learned about Access to University (A2U), a collaborative program offered by Wilfrid Laurier University and The Working Centre, a non-profit community agency in downtown Kitchener. Laurier and The Working Centre have worked together on other programs that connect the university’s academic resources with the community support services that The Working Centre has provided for more than 30 years in downtown Kitchener.
The A2U program is designed to improve access to university for non-traditional learners, including first-generation students, new Canadians, Indigenous people, older workers, people living on limited income, and people who face other barriers to entering university.
“The A2U program demonstrates that with sufficient preparation and supports the students who would otherwise be excluded from higher education can access the system,” says Bob Sharpe, an associate professor at Laurier and faculty liaison for the project.
The Lyle S. Hallman Foundation has provided $400,000 to fund the A2U program. The funding will help provide two cohorts of 15 people with the opportunity to take five Laurier courses each.
Laura Mae Lindo, director of the university’s Diversity and Equity Office, taught one of the two introductory courses, which are designed to aid the cohort as they transition into university classes.
“At Laurier there is a culture of collaboration, and a culture of real relationship building,” says Lindo. “It’s not just theoretical, these are real supports.... Knowing that the support is there has made a big difference.”
Upon completion of the introductory courses, students are funded to take three first-year classes of their choosing from the Faculty of Arts.
Lao has already completed one English course, EN119: Reading Fiction. Through this course he has developed an interest in literary genres such as science fiction.
Lao has also made use of individualized student support systems that Laurier offers through its Accessible Learning Centre. The centre offers numerous programs to help students succeed and learn according to their own unique learning profile. Supports include: tutoring, note-taking, learning strategies, peer support, exam support, assistant technology, transcription technology and consultant support.
About nine percent of Laurier’s undergraduate students at both the Waterloo and Brantford campuses use the supports offered by Accessible Learning. Each year the number of students who use the system increases by approximately 10 per cent, which reflects a growing need for individualized learning supports.
Lao wants to continue his education in the hopes of becoming a teacher and sharing his passion for the arts with others.
In addition to his studies, Lao volunteers with the kinds of mental-health awareness and support programs that helped him during his recovery. It’s a way to help him use what he is passionate about to help others.
For example, Lao volunteers with Spark of Brilliance, a group that promotes the use of expressive arts for healing, recovery and discovery for individuals living with mental health and addiction issues. He also volunteers with Beautiful Minds, an organization that provides school-based education programs that focus on positive mental health and the reduction of stigma.
Rather than viewing his struggles with mental health as a hindrance to his pursuit of higher learning, Lao has a positive outlook on his experience.
“I’ve gone through a change and a kind of metamorphosis into something different,” said Lao. “I appreciate life at a different level.”
The first A2U cohort is currently finishing its last required class, and The Working Centre is now accepting applications for the second cohort.
Information about the application process for the A2U program can be found on The Working Centre website.
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