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Former Students Reflect as Academic Bridging Program Turns 50

Posted on September 26, 2017  |  Filed under:

A Reflection on How the Bridging Program Started and Where It Is Headed

By Elaine Smith

When J. Barbara Rose entered The Millie Rotman Shime Academic Bridging Program (ABP) in 1986, she recalls that the majority of students in her class were “women of a certain age who were married in the 1970s and whose kids were off at school, giving them a chance to do something they wanted to do.”

In 2017, as the Woodsworth College program celebrates its 50th anniversary, the mission has not changed, although the demographic makeup of the classes is a bit different. The ABP continues to be “an access program that provides the opportunity for mature students, who do not meet the established direct entry requirements, to qualify for admission to the Faculty of Arts & Science.” However, the majority of students today are “young men left behind who didn’t have a good high school experience and have no direction,” according to Professor Tom Socknat, the program director. “The bridging program is an attempt to turn their lives around and show them that they can do really well if they set their minds to it.”

Both Rose, who began the ABP (then called the Pre-University Program) at age 39, and Tim Harrison, who participated in the program in 2003, are living proof that bridging graduates can reshape their lives and have stellar careers.

Rose, who worked for many years as the executive assistant to Harry Rosen of Toronto clothing store fame, is now an associate professor, teaching stream at U of T. She teaches Introduction to Literature in the ABP and serves as the associate director of the Academic Writing Centre at Woodsworth College.

Harrison did poorly in high school and turned part-time modelling into a career after graduation before returning to university at age 24. Today, he is an assistant professor of English at the prestigious University of Chicago.

Rose first entertained thoughts of higher education when her boss’s wife asked for help typing essays for her undergraduate program.

“It whetted my appetite,” she says, “although, frankly, I was terrified. I had been away from school for at least 25 years, and my background was in business.”

Nonetheless, she registered for the ABP, attended the evening class weekly and passed the course. Eager to continue learning, Rose forged on, earning her bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees. She also completed all of the coursework for a doctorate before joining the staff at U of T.

“Bridging provided such validation that I was smart, regardless of what anyone said,” she notes. “It was life changing and transformative.”

Harrison agrees wholeheartedly.

“I came back to Canada with the aim of going to school, but I didn’t meet the entrance requirements,” he says. “My cousin knew about the bridging program, and I enrolled and really enjoyed it. I started my undergraduate degree the following year.”

He found kindred spirits enrolled in the ABP. “They were people who hadn’t done well in high school and hadn’t been interested in university—similar kinds of stories to mine. I liked the feeling of working hard to bring myself out of where I was in order to head someplace else.”

Harrison took a full course load during his first year of undergraduate studies and worked 40 hours a week to fund his education. He knew if he could earn an A+ average, he might be eligible for a scholarship. He achieved his goal, which then led him to pursue a doctorate.

“I saw it as an opportunity,” he says. “The bridging program changed my life. No way could I have gone to U of T without it. It was extraordinarily transformative for me, both in terms of learning and expanding my mind and in re-orienting the trajectory of my life.”

Rose, who plans to retire in 2018, says even if students in the ABP don’t take other classes afterward, they have learned that they can persevere and meet challenges.

“I’ll do anything I can to help my students complete the course,” she says. “Whether or not they retain much about T.S. Eliot or Shakespeare, they do learn a lot about themselves.”

Read about a current Academic Bridging Program student here.

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