Dal transition year program still evolving after 40 years

The university preparation program makes an impact on black and aboriginal students

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Alumni, students, faculty, and friends of TYP gather at the symposium. (Photo: Peter de Vries)

Shannon Emmerson has been working the same tedious job as a nurse's aide at the IWK Health Centre for 11 years. Separated from her husband and earning $17.56 an hour, she's forced to work an extra part-time job at a Tim Hortons to support her two kids, 11 and eight years old.

She has used up all of her employment insurance and she's falling behind in her bills. It's May 2009.

She applies to Dalhousie University's transition year program (TYP) as a mature student in hopes of eventually earning a degree in nursing, and then going to medical school. She has to apply for social assistance too. She gets in. She quits both her jobs.

"It was like robbing Peter to pay Paul," says Emmerson. "I realized I needed to slow down, go back to school and do something for me."

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TYP faculty, alumni, and friends dance in celebration of the program's 40 year anniversary. (Video: Peter de Vries)

TYP is a one-year program designed to prepare black and aboriginal students in Nova Scotia for university education. It's run by Dalhousie University's college of continuing education. The program turned 40 years old earlier this month and more than 20 TYP alumni, faculty members and current TYP students attended a symposium last Saturday to discuss the program's past, present and future.

Impact on students

Darlene Lawrence, a 1977 TYP alumnus, tells the crowd how she met Burnley "Rocky" Jones, TYP's co-founder, when Jones came to her high school to speak to black students. She says she was inspired by the way Jones talked about black culture.
Lawrence is one of the students Jones recruited to TYP in 1976. Jones became one of her instructors and she says he and TYP had a profound impact on who she is today.

"It helped me to think critically about the world I live in and analyze who I am as a black woman," she says. "I probably wouldn't be doing the work I am now if it weren't for TYP."

Lawrence went on to complete a BA and then a BSc in psychology after completing TYP. She is now executive director of the Digby County Family Resource Centre. She says Jones is the "most critically important" person in her life.

"He made us think. He made us question the world around us," says Lawrence. "I owe all of these lessons to Rocky Jones."

Humble beginnings of an important program

Jones and his friend Jim Walker came up with the idea for TYP while they were alone on the first night of a duck-hunting trip in October, 1968. Huddled inside their tent with Jones's dog, Pooh-Bear, and a bottle of rum they talked all night about a program that would bridge the divide between the aboriginal and black communities in Nova Scotia and unite them in a quest for higher education.

"We considered ourselves to be the progressive left at the time," says Jones. "The administration (at Dalhousie) was terrified of us."

TYP began its first year in 1970, and more than 1,000 students have graduated from the program since. It was originally created with two long-term goals - the development of leadership and self-help capacity within Nova Scotia's black and aboriginal communities and the end of poverty through education in those communities.

An ‘insufficient' solution to a greater problem

Isaac Saney, professor of black studies at TYP for 15 years, says those goals have yet to be accomplished.

"TYP is an insufficient measure to address the weight of inequality that black and aboriginal students have been facing on a broad societal level," he says. "We have limited resources in terms of what we can do to teach and support the students financially. "

Saney says he finds it interesting that many Canadians identify with the struggle of black Americans in the civil rights movement but not with the struggles in their own communities.

"Canadians are blind to their own history. If you talk to most Nova Scotians they would never know that slavery and Jim Crow segregation existed in Canada."

Saney says TYP has come under attack from people who think that affirmative action isn't necessary, and see the program as reverse racism. He says these people feel this way because they don't understand the history of Nova Scotia's aboriginal and black communities.

"We need to have a broader education in the university about the necessity of TYP, the historical context and conditions that justify such a program and what makes it a necessary initiative from Dal.

"That's what makes TYP an important but insufficient answer to these problems by itself."

TYP usually admits 25 students per year. Those students must be black or aboriginal to be eligible for the program. Once accepted, they are enrolled full-time in six courses: English, black studies, aboriginal studies, math, study skills and computer skills.
If those students complete TYP with a B average, Dalhousie University waives their tuition for the first year of their undergraduate degrees. If students maintain a 2.0 average in each year of their undergraduate degrees, their tuition fees are waived.

Admission to TYP is based on financial need and the program typically gets 90 applications per year.

Room for improvement

TYP is still growing as program. Patricia Doyle-Bedwell, director of TYP since 1998, says she hopes to start expanding the program's academic support to fields like health sciences, biology and chemistry, among others. She says incorporating Afrocentric and indigenous knowledge of math and science into TYP through the Council on African Canadian Education has been a dream of hers for 10 years.

TYP also provides counselling services for its students and tutoring for some undergraduate programs. Doyle-Bedwell says she remembers being a kid in a Catholic school when a nun told her, "You're just a stupid, dumb Indian." She says counselling is crucial in helping the students rid themselves of misconceptions surrounding their identities.

"It's a matter of support, making connections to the past and the future, and getting rid of all that internalized nonsense.

"We're helping students from both of our communities see people who look like them in professional jobs and know that that's actually something within their reach."

Lawrence hopes that TYP's instructors will continue to inspire students like Jones inspired her, however the program may evolve.

"You can put someone through an academic program and get them their masters and PhD, but there's a problem if they don't know themselves as a Mi'kmaq or as an African person. If they don't know the struggles of their people, they don't become leaders."

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