Creating More Inclusive and Meaningful Programs for Women Facing Barriers to Education

Georgia Quartaro, Dean of the Centre for Preparatory and Liberal Studies at George Brown College, is a 2016 YWCA Toronto Woman of Distinction.

I have the privilege of working at a college where I see lives transformed every year. This is true across the college, of course, as students learn, develop skills, and find the work they are passionate about. However, it has a special resonance for me. In addition to programs for students who are undertaking more conventional studies, our division includes special programs for people who have significant challenges related to mental health, addictions, or experiences of violence.  These students often come to the college filled with equal amounts of hope and trepidation, often very unsure about their ability to manage in a post-secondary setting and to be successful here.  To their delight and mine, many complete their studies successfully and also make important personal changes.

Amy is one student I’ll always remember. Her late teen and early adult years were increasingly troubled. She drank excessively, used illegal drugs, and was living on the street after a final rupture with her parents. Finally realizing that she needed to change this, Amy moved to Toronto from a neighbouring city, enrolled in a rehabilitation program and moved on to transitional housing. Her recovery was still very fragile when she entered one of our Augmented Education programs to train as a cook.  Bright and intellectual by nature, she did well with the program content but was impatient with the self-assessment and self-reflection that is an important part of this program. She was even more impatient with her fellow-students, especially when they wanted to talk about their own feelings and reactions or didn’t learn the material as quickly as Amy did.

She was engaged but aloof until the day another student, a woman who struggled with learning the content, confronted Amy and then hugged her. The staff held their breaths. Amy was definitely not a hugger! Amy stood rigid for a moment, and then returned the embrace. Change didn’t come in a single day, but Amy began to thaw, able to share more about herself and to be more supportive to her classmates, helping them to learn the skills that came easily to her. She is a successful graduate, who continues to be employed in her field, and has returned to talk with and encourage current students.  She speaks highly of the role the program has had helping her create the life she has now.  We are enormously proud of her – and she gives me a big hug whenever I see her.

As a Dean, I don’t teach students now, although I did for many years. I help to create and sustain the programs in our students learn. For so many of them, education opens the path to a better, more rewarding life. People who were told – and believed – that they would never succeed go on to employment or further education. Every year I see students overcome their self-doubt and develop confidence as well as knowledge and skill. They tell me how much the opportunity to come to George Brown means to them, and this is especially true for the students who have experienced barriers and challenges. I am deeply honoured that my work is being recognized with a YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction award.

2016WOD-Georgia MemeFA

No single organization can meet all the needs of women like Amy and so many others who have experienced violence, have mental health or addictions issues, struggle to obtain and sustain employment, or lack stable housing. YWCA Toronto provides programs, housing and training for women who need support.  Many students have also benefitted from YWCA Toronto’s services before coming to the college or while they are here. The college is just one part of the network of community resources for women who need support. Together, we help women to transform their lives.

To read Georgia’s full bio, click here. Learn more about YWCA Toronto’s Women of Distinction Awards, happening May 26, 2016, at womenofdistinction.ca