Sheridan's partnership with Home Suite Hope gives students a bright future
Postsecondary education presents challenges for even the best-prepared learners.
A new academic environment, social changes, and financial pressures are tough for most students. But for others, the goal of pursuing higher education is buried deep under a tangle of additional socioeconomic challenges. Some are the first in their families to pursue postsecondary studies. Others are living with housing insecurity or are members of racialized communities. Some live at the intersection of several of these challenges, and all face barriers to education.
For several years, Oakville-based Home Suite Hope (HSH) – a non-profit organization dedicated to building a more sustainable future for single-parent families – has partnered with Sheridan to help provide single mothers experiencing poverty with targeted financial, academic and social supports so they can cut through those barriers. When women enter Home Suite Hope they are set up with basics including secure housing and parenting supports. Then, those who are interested in returning to school can enter the Homeward Bound program which focuses on supporting the women through studies at Sheridan to get them ready for a self-sustaining career.
Since 2018, 11 HSH clients have graduated from Sheridan, in large part thanks to the support of their mentors - a volunteer Sheridan staff or faculty member who offers a friendly ear and supportive advice. That can include navigating course selection, getting through the end-of-term deadline crush, or a friendly chat about the pleasures and pitfalls of parenting.
Dr. Sara Cumming is Executive Director of Home Suite Hope and a professor of sociology at Sheridan. She says that a mentor’s encouragement is essential because many of these women never thought they could study past high school.
“Families are rarely homeless just due to not earning enough money. Generally, there are so many compounding factors –one of which is poor socialization … a lack of sightline to any other type of life. These women have rarely been exposed to even the idea of postsecondary school,” Dr. Cumming explains. “Sheridan mentors provide a friendly face when they are feeling overwhelmed. In addition, many of these women feel like terrible mothers because of their poverty - like they can't be employees and mothers and be good at both, and yet, they look up to these mentors. Mentors help the women see the possibilities for their lives.”
Amanda Pike, Sheridan’s Chief Change Officer, is one of those mentors. She realized the impact Home Suite Hope has when her mentee told her that, without it, she may have found herself back in an unhealthy relationship and on the street. Pike has also had her eyes opened to how important a robust support system truly is for these parents.
"The level of complexity that some of these women are dealing with in their lives is a tremendous barrier they need to overcome to be successful in their studies,” she says. “Their willpower isn't enough – it is not going to sustain them when life really hits and throws them a curve ball. And there seems to be one curve ball after another in in some of these women's situations.”
Getting a chance to see roadblocks from a student’s vantage is why Sheridan President and Vice Chancellor Dr. Janet Morrison was drawn to the mentorship when she first came to Sheridan as Provost and Vice President, Academic, in 2016 and was looking for a way to connect with students. She has now mentored two students, including a woman studying in Sheridan’s skilled trades program – a mentorship set up specifically to encourage Home Suite Hope clients to pursue careers where women are underrepresented and stable, high-paying career options are abound.
"I was so inspired and energized by her. She's funny, she's smart, and she's highly motivated. And most importantly, she wants to be a good mom,” Dr. Morrison says. “She and her family will have economic stability as a consequence of the investments she made in herself and her education. That makes me immensely proud.“
What Home Suite Hope does so beautifully is facilitate an inclusive, open and diverse opportunity for us to engage with learners who will change the world. We just need to facilitate the right support,” she adds. “I think the partnership is an exceptional one for Sheridan.”
For the three students below, the view of a better future is now a lot clearer thanks to Home Suite Hope and Sheridan’s partnership.
The path from homelessness to graduation
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sasha realized how lucky she was. She saw a news story about a homeless, pregnant woman who contracted coronavirus, and realized it was only a matter of luck and timing that she wasn’t living that same reality. Just five years ago, she too was pregnant, and moving from one shelter to another. Thanks to her determination and involvement in Home Suite Hope, she was able to spend the early part of the pandemic preparing to graduate with honours from Sheridan’s Community and Justice Services program.
"Seeing that (story) hit something inside - looking back brings me to tears. But those tears are no longer tear of sorrow or sadness, they’re more tears of joy to see how much I’ve overcome, and what will happen in the future. It makes me feel like anything is possible at this point.”
"She [my mentor] taught me that I am able to do so much more than I think I’m capable of. She’s shared her own experiences with me, and that has helped to encourage me. If she can do it, I can do it." - Sasha
Sasha heard about Home Suite Hope after giving birth to her son. She entered the program, spent her first year getting settled into housing, and then turned to her next goal: going back to school.
Starting at Sheridan was no easy task. First, she had to arrange daycare. Then she took some courses to upgrade her academics. Finally, she had to figure out how to get from her Oakville home to Davis Campus in Brampton. Every step of the way, Home Suite Hope supported her, even helping her earn her driver’s license. “I bought a car for $1,500 and it broke down after my first year,” Sasha laughs. “The floor was rusty, but it helped the situation big time.”
Throughout her studies, Sasha credits professors Cathy Marion and Lisa Baxter for encouraging her. Sasha’s mentor also played an essential role in keeping her motivated. She was always ready to listen, and taught Sasha the importance of taking time to celebrate her accomplishments. Most importantly, her mentor advised to look ahead and take on new challenges in the future – including considering earning her degree in community safety.
"She taught me that I am able to do so much more than I think I’m capable of. She’s shared her own experiences with me, and that has helped to encourage me. If she can do it, I can do it. It’s nice to see how somebody else has been through a lot, and how things turned out for them. I think I can really do a lot more than I realize.”
Next, Sasha is eager to begin her career – ideally working with vulnerable women in corrections or community supports. She also plans to stay involved with Home Suite Hope – this time as a mentor for other women to show them what they, too, are capable of achieving.
“I'm going to do something. I'm going to give it my all,” she says. “I feel like I've already lost so much time. I'm trying to make up for it.”
Heading toward independence
After her son was born, Melissa was in the hospital grappling with anxieties that went beyond diaper changes and bathtime. She worried about her insecure housing, and balancing motherhood with a job at a restaurant where 2 a.m. was the regular quitting time. When a nurse told her about Home Suite Hope, she was eager to try it out.
Once her housing was stabilized, she turned her thoughts toward what came next: building a long-term, prosperous life. Coming to Sheridan for human resources was an important part of that to lead up to a stable, nine-to-five job.
“Human resources is like nothing I've ever studied before. I've never done accounting or marketing or anything else like that before, so I enjoy learning new material.”
Melissa credits her mentor with helping her see the possibilities, including arranging meetings with HR colleagues at Sheridan so she could learn more about the day-to-day of working in the profession. Her mentor was also a sounding board.
“I can tell her about my experiences at school and learning to study again with a child at home, and she has given me advice on my personal life,” Melissa says. “Her advice on balancing school or work life, and still remembering to be mindful and take time some for myself… (that) stands out the most.”
She also credits Home Suite Hope with helping her get the support she needed to move online after the pandemic forced campus – and child care – closures. That included providing access to technology, and support and advice on studying while also caring for a toddler.
“Home Suite Hope is there to support you to be self-sufficient and get an education … the mentorship is very positive and I’m grateful to Home Suite Hope and Sheridan,” she says.
Realizing a lifelong dream
Robina Afzal had always dreamed of earning a degree. But when she came to Canada from Dubai with her new husband in 2007, she soon found herself busy with family life and working office administration jobs. Postsecondary education was pushed to the backburner.
A decade later, she became a single parent, having left an abusive relationship. She wanted to build a career to support her kids.
A social worker linked Robina to Home Suite Hope, and in 2019, she finally began pursuing her dreams, working towards an Accounting diploma. “I wanted to pursue my career, raise three kids and not be dependent on anybody,” she says.
It hasn’t been easy. At first, she found it tough to connect with her younger peers. She also had to upgrade her academics and learn to balance motherhood with school. The hardest part was learning to trust that her three kids – ages 14, 13 and 10 – could be on their own when she was in class.
“I had never left my kids at home. So that was big step for me,” Robina recalls. “The first time, I remember, I was sitting in the parking lot in my car and I was crying.”
Robina credits her mentor with helping her see that her kids would be alight. Her mentor also helped her keep her eye on the prize – graduation – so she didn’t get bogged down worrying about grades on each individual test or assignment. Her mentor also encouraged her to take advantage of services such as Sheridan’s tutoring centre, and listened as Robina coped with her own mental health challenges.
Now, she says she sees herself as an example for her children – proof that a better life is always possible when you have the supports you need to believe in yourself.
“If you have somebody who is motivating you and you keep going, then it's easier for you to do it,” she says. “I think Home Suite Hope did that for me and I really thank Sheridan for accepting me.”
Pictured above (left): Dr. Sara Cumming (top row, left) and her Home Suite Hope colleagues. Pictured above right: Sheridan student and Home Suite Hope mentee Robina Afzal.