At 22, Fanny Munezero has survived more than what most people face in a lifetime.
At 13, she fell victim to civil unrest in the Congo and was forced to become a war bride. She became pregnant, and fled to Uganda, before immigrating to Canada with her now 8-year-old son, Ezra.
Arriving in London in 2016, Munezero was excited to attend high school, but it proved to be a daily challenge to live on her own, raise Ezra and ensure he got to school as well.
“It was hard for me. The time I had to leave him at school was the same time I had to be in class. And my first class was biology. Sometimes we’d be having tests and I’d arrive 15 minutes late or I’d miss school altogether if my son’s teacher needed to talk to me.
“It was the same thing at the end of the day. My classes finished at 2:20 and his at 2:35 and I’d be running from my school to his.”
The physical logistics were taxing enough, but emotionally, Munezero was devastated.
“You don’t want to fail. You want to have a good start, a new future, a new life. It is such an opportunity when you are able to go to school, but I was struggling to know how to do it.”
A caring and observant guidance counsellor recognized Western’s School Within a University (SWAU) program as a perfect fit for Munezero, offering the flexibility to accommodate her needs.
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.
“Both my SWAU teachers knew I had a son,” Munezero said. “They knew I wanted to make it; they saw potential in me I doubted I had; they knew what encouragements to give me and how to approach my weaknesses to make them my strengths.”
Supporting two step-siblings back home, and living on a limited income in Canada, the bus pass and snacks provided through SWAU also made a tangible difference.
“The snacks, for me, were my lunch, my breakfast. That helped me because I would start classes without feeling hungry. I could manage my budget until the end of the month, and me and my son we’d have food at nights. He had his snacks for lunch, because I had mine in SWAU.”
When Munezero was told she had earned her OSSD, she “didn’t believe it.”
“I remember asking, my teacher, Rob (Bell), ‘Did I do it? Or are you pitying me?’ I couldn’t believe I had done it.”
She had done it and achieved the marks needed to be accepted into Western’s Medical Sciences program. But without the continued support she receives from her former SWAU teachers and counsellors, Munezero doesn’t think she would have survived her first year of university.
“In the beginning, I was struggling. I did not grow up in a country that had technology and did not know how to check everything online. Sometimes you miss things. And then I’d just remember, I had people I can go and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ They’re my home base.”
She also could not have attended university without the Joyce Family Foundation Continuing Award, a $5,000 bursary awarded to graduates of the SWAU program who go on to study at Western. The bursaries were created as part of a $5-million gift in 2014, which also funded the expansion of the SWAU program.
The bursary has “been a real blessing, and has given me confidence to pursue big dreams for the future,” Munezero said.
“After my undergrad, I want to go to med school and apply to work with Doctors Without Borders. I gave birth at 13, alone in the hospital, without problems and was blessed to go back home. But some of the people I lived with, they passed away because they didn’t have medical care, or it was super expensive for them to get it.
“I want to be able to give back. I did not have a mother or a father growing up who supported me. Different people, different organizations gave me food, gave me school fees. Now I am here with my son and it’s a blessing to be shared with others.”
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