Program provides ‘right supports’ for success

Frank Neufeld // Western NewsFor Jason Paiero, Western’s School Within A University (SWAU) program offered exactly the right supports for a young man who today is first to tell you he is “at university against all odds.”

At first glance, Jason Paiero seems like he was always on track to thrive at Western.

He relishes famed English professor David Bentley’s classes, enjoys writing for the student newspaper and serves on the Arts & Humanities Students’ Council. But, he’s the first to tell you that he is “at university against all odds.”

“I didn’t fit into the traditional high school atmosphere, where the social aspect is a big part of it,” he continued. “It can be really tough, especially when you’re just a kid, going through other struggles outside of school. Often, you have other things to do, like working. You can’t give 100 per cent because there’s so many other things going on.”

Growing up underprivileged in Woodstock, Ont., Paiero left high school during his final year to work full-time. But his dream remained to change his life through higher education.

He explored options available for achieving his high school diploma within his hometown, enrolling in adult and online learning classes, intermittently, while holding down a job.

“Adult learning got my brain working again, but it wasn’t a full educational experience and it didn’t offer me the avenue toward university,” Paiero said. “Online learning is a great resource, but none of it is guided, and doubts can spring up so easily when you’ve struggled. There’s no source of validation or anyone helping you get through it.”

Determined, he returned to his old high school where a chat with his former guidance counsellor saw him referred to the School Within A University (SWAU) program at Western.

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.

“Boom! I joined SWAU and I graduated as an Ontario Scholar by the end of the year,” Paiero said. “Finally, you are given the right way to approach it – and the right supports.”

Paiero would not have had access to SWAU had it not been for a $5-million gift to Western from the Joyce Family Foundation in 2014. A portion of the gift funded an expansion of the program to include significantly more students from rural areas outside of London, covering costs for resources and safe transportation.

“Without their funding for a taxi from Woodstock, I would not have had access to the SWAU program. Basically, I would have stayed stuck.”

The Foundation also created The Joyce Family Foundation Continuing Award, which provides $5,000 a year for students who graduate from SWAU and go on to study at Western.

Paiero, now in his second year studying English at Western, has received the award for the past two years.

“That award been such a help,” he said. “School for anyone is expensive, and especially if you are coming from disadvantage in the first place. When you get accepted into university, it is the best feeling in the world, but eventually it becomes, ‘How am I going to pay for it?’ and that becomes a crash. But with the bursary, I could focus on getting ready for school rather than worrying so much if it was even possible.”

More about the School Within a University: