Gayle McFadden isn’t a student anymore, yet spends three of five work days on Ontario campuses.
She’s the national representative at the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario (CFS-O). She’s talking to students to figure out who’s left out of the Ontario Student Grant, which rolled out in the fall.
When the grant was announced, the government said students from families earning less than $50,000 will be provided non-repayable grants expected to go beyond the cost of tuition. But students had to have graduated high school within four years of applying for the grant.
Now, mature students will be eligible as well. McFadden said this is a step in the right direction, adding that she’s found mature, part-time, and international students are typically people who can’t access certain grants.
“(The government has) this backwards notion that mature students, ‘Oh, they’ve probably had a full-time job and have all this money. Part-time students, they’ve been working all this time,’” said McFadden. “They’re presenting this norm that isn’t a reality.”
It was a reality for John Lescano a few years ago.
Lescano is a mature student at Ryerson in his second year of the computer science program. After high school he went into a business program at York University, but found it wasn’t for him. He decided to go into computer science, but didn’t have the required courses, forcing him to to go back to high school and take them. This took him a year, during which he worked several jobs to help pay off the debt he accumulated at York. He worked at a restaurant and as a bike courier in his first year.
“It was physically taxing and everything just felt a lot more stressful because I felt like I was on a big time constraint for everything,” said Lescano. But this year he chose not to work and he said he’s had more freedom and less stress.
Rayan Chbaklo, a third-year Ryerson computer science student, has a similar view. He’s been on the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) since his second semester when he switched from mechanical engineering to computer science. Because work was affecting his GPA, Chbaklo hasn’t worked for over a year and has been depending on OSAP to help him survive the semester.
Chbaklo took adult classes when he came to Canada from Lebanon because his high school wasn’t accredited. It didn’t provide him with a program that expanded on his interest in computers.
“Back home you either have to be an engineer, a doctor or a businessman. You can’t really go into different fields,” said Chbaklo. “So hopefully now, all the lower income families, the people who never had a chance to study what they wanted to study, [the grant] will give them a chance to.”
Rabbia Ashraf, president of the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR) calls the grant bittersweet. When they heard the news that mature students would be included she said they thought it was great because it’s something that’s been missing for so long. However, as a union that represents part-time and continuing education students, they went over the grant with a fine-tooth comb to make sure it actually served their needs.
Ashraf says CESAR is relying on CFS to collect that data to observe how the grant is rolled out and who is actually able to access it. There’s a list of students who are eligible on the OSAP website, but there are situations that don’t fit easily into that description.
“At Ryerson you can be enrolled in a full-time undergraduate degree but because of your course load you might go to school part time. Are those students able to access that or not?” said Ashraf.
Ashraf said students already face this and other “hypothetical situations” with OSAP. She said she fears the new Ontario Student Grant may be the same way.
McFadden said centring the voices of students and telling their stories helps combat the rhetoric of mature and part-time students not needing these grants. McFadden said it’s important to keep fighting for those left out, because they often need it the most.