Program creates a new life in a new home

Frank Neufeld // Western News

Mariana Garcia cried when she received her acceptance letter to Western’s School Within A University. “It is probably one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I got here and fell in love with school once again.”

At first, everything was fine. At 11, Mariana Garcia emigrated from Mexico to Canada. She welcomed the chance to make a life in a new country. “Canada is so beautiful,” she said.

But soon, the realities of her situation took hold. No one at her school spoke Spanish, leaving Mariana isolated. By the final years of high school, she was quite vulnerable.

“I had a really hard time adjusting to a new culture and a new language. I started developing some mental-health problems – depression and, eventually, an eating disorder, which put me in the hospital for a long period of time. I missed most of Grade 11.”

When Garcia returned to school, she was so far behind, it looked unlikely she’d graduate.

“It was one of the hardest things. What made me angry was my inability to function properly in a school environment. It was really frustrating because I knew I wanted to go to university.”

Having heard about Western’s School Within a University (SWAU) program from another patient in the hospital, she saw it as her only hope.

SWAU is for high potential students, aged 17-20, experiencing exceptional challenges, at risk of not completing high school and moving on to postsecondary studies.

Operated out of a classroom on Western’s campus by two Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) teachers, SWAU allows students to experience the university environment while completing their Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD), with the option of earning a university credit as well.  Counselors, support staff and student peers help ensure a successful transition to postsecondary programs.

Garcia convinced her principal to put her name forward as a potential candidate.

“She put me in touch and I got an interview. I was nervous but the SWAU teacher, Rob (Bell), made me feel so welcome. I felt maybe there was hope for me. That inspired me to work hard towards my recovery. I thought, ‘Okay, I’ve been given this chance. This means somebody actually cares about what is happening in my life – something I really didn’t find in the regular school system.”

Garcia cried when she received her acceptance letter to SWAU. “It is probably one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. I got here and fell in love with school once again.”

Today, she’s a peer mentor in the SWAU classroom and in her fourth year of Political Science at Western.

She is also a grateful four-time recipient of the Joyce Family Foundation Continuing Award, a bursary created through a $5 million-dollar gift from the Foundation in 2014, which provides $5,000 a year to SWAU graduates who go on to study at Western.

“Their award was so important, because while I was learning to juggle both school and a healthy lifestyle, there was no way for me to work and pay for tuition.”

Just as significant for her, however, was meeting members of the Joyce family when they visited campus just after she graduated from SWAU.

“That was amazing for me. I felt supported, especially coming from a culture where we never talked about mental-health struggles. This was the first time there was an acknowledgement from everyone in the room, that there were problems actually keeping people from realizing their potential. It was not because they weren’t able to do things, it was just because they were struggling.

“Now I’m in my final year at Western and in such a better place. That overall support has played such a key role in my being where I am today.”

More about the School Within a University: