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It’s unusual to see a child on a post-secondary campus, but Katherine Belcourt’s eight-year-old daughter Emalee often accompanies her at the University of Alberta, where Katherine is completing a Bachelor of Science. Katherine, who is president of the Aboriginal Student Council and is very active in the Indigenous community and politics on campus, brings her daughter to council meetings and other evening and weekend university commitments. Though Emalee’s presence is not always welcomed, Katherine has helped educate her peers about being a young parent and the additional responsibilities she shoulders.
University and college campuses haven’t traditionally had child-friendly spaces and few offer services and supports specifically for students who are pregnant or parenting. Gracia Hepburn, Post High School Transition Program Facilitator with Terra, is trying to change that. She supports Terra participants as they transition from high school to post-secondary or career training programs, and one element of her work is advocating for young parents so that they feel supported and welcomed on campus.
Katherine (left) with Gracia on the University of Alberta campus.
With funding from EPCOR, Terra established the Post High School Transition Program (PHSTP) in 2016 to bridge a gap in support. Feedback showed that Terra participants and alumni struggled to adjust to post-secondary. PHSTP supports participants across the agency, including young dads.
What makes the adjustment to post-secondary difficult? For those who completed their high school education at Braemar School, graduation means leaving behind a wealth of onsite services such as a family doctor, mental health therapist, childcare, educational support, a trauma-informed environment and a community of teen-parent peers. After leaving Braemar, they must re-establish many or all of those supports in their lives, as they adjust to their new life on campus.
Much of Gracia’s role involves one-on-one support with participants, meeting them on campus or in the community and helping them not only with educational issues, but also anything else that’s causing instability in their lives, whether it’s housing, finances, childcare, food security or healthy relationships. Only when their primary needs are met can students apply their focus in the classroom.
“Gracia has helped me most when my mental health has impacted my success and with organizing my degree and life.” says Katherine. “When I meet with Gracia, we talk about how things are going at home, at school and in my extracurriculars. She is mindful that I am a young mother and I see her consideration of that when I share the challenges I’m facing, because it affects the situation in ways that are often overlooked. When we’re not talking about life, Gracia mentors me in getting organized and supports me through the struggles of picking classes and planning my degree.”
The Post High School Transition Program offers three streams of support. The first is for participants enrolled in post-secondary who require intensive, long-term support. The second is for participants who also require long-term support but who have another Terra staff member who supports them, as well. In this case, Gracia provides educational support while the other staff member supports them with different aspects of life management. The third stream is for high school students at Braemar preparing to graduate who need support exploring their education and career options.
The program has seen many successes and overwhelming demand over its three-year lifespan. One of the program’s biggest achievements has been the culture shift among participants at Braemar School.
“If anything, Gracia’s work with participants and her presence here at Braemar have sent a clear message to our young moms that post-secondary is within their grasp,” says Allison O’Grady, Manager Services for Educational Achievement. “That’s an amazing thing because when our program first started, moms thought they had to be in some mythical place. We often heard ‘I can’t do post-secondary until…,’ ‘Things aren’t good with my partner right now’ or ‘My housing isn’t secure.’ So they wouldn’t pursue it, waiting for everything to line up.” Allison adds, “Through Gracia’s work with participants and the way she talks about post-secondary as a natural, normal thing, many of our moms feel like it’s within their reach.”
Now, concluding its third and final year of funding, the program is in a tentative place as Terra seeks funding to continue the program. It’s clear that the need for this program isn’t going anywhere. Now more than ever, post-secondary is a minimum requirement for many careers and it’s also necessary to support a family financially. This program positions Terra participants to fully explore their post-secondary and career options and supports them on their journey to achieving their educational goals.
You can help transform more lives through the power of education by making a contribution today. Help us raise money to continue this important program so more teen parents have a path to post-secondary education. Visit our online donation page to make your gift today.
Thank you for helping young parents like Katherine succeed and create brighter futures for themselves and their children.
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