PhD Research

The research proposal-in-making

HELP: Potential title (no semicolon) Pushing privileged pillars in Canadian universities??? Outliers imagining and hoping otherwise in and for Canadian universities????

***Note that the entire proposal cannot be posted here as I have to adhere to institutional ethics of anonymity. However, this does not necessitate excluding the main components of the research proposal.

keywords: community based participatory action, poverty, Canada, Canadian universities, EDI, social justice, inequality, inequity, widening participation and access

An evidence-based distilled rant

Introduction

I never imagined researching social stratification and inequality in Canada. I only knew living it. Yet, pre-sociology and pre-degree, I found myself tackling these egregious problems through writing plays, poetry and creative non-fiction. I certainly never set out to research poverty-class students in Canadian universities. Why? I never imagined going to university. I never imagined taking courses that were anything but utilitarian such as accounting, finance and programming. That is, courses that could directly lead to employment. Heck, I didn’t even know university existed until my late 20s. Even then, at best, it was a vague concept. Yet, after two soul sucking student loan-based college diplomas, the idea of a university degree took root—from somewhere. However, obtaining a university degree dogged me for the next several decades. During this time, without  that venerated piece of paper, career doors were barred to me. Regardless of the hours I worked and contributions I made, my paycheques stagnated at paltry levels. In essence, like the women before me, I lived a hand-to-mouth existence. I was born into this world; this was to be my future. But many things happened that might change this trajectory. (I ask that my educational journey—life journey—not be reduced to Othering platitudes such as drive, determination or resilience for I am not a special case study). The list is too weighty for here; a critical analysis might make it into my dissertation by means of methodology and methods. How I came to my doctoral  research study might be brilliantly brutalistic if I have the wherewithal to share it or at least tell it in a way that protects me. Perhaps a thickly redacted autoethnographic narrative? What I can, however, share is this: Education promised a way out of poverty; Canadian universities, lauded as the great equalizer, broke this promise—and, continue to break their promise (Adair, 2001). In my academic travels, I have learned that the colonial capitalist-cum-neoliberal Canadian university is no “landscape for a good [underclass] woman” (Steedman, 1987). Though, I contend, these statements are far too tame.

Consider, instead of being sites for activism and social justice to tackle and dismantle systemic poverty, Canadian universities, and much of Canadian higher education research, exclude social class from their EDI lenses, sheepishly shying away from looking in the class-based inequality and inequity mirror and hide in the taxpayer-funded manicured shrubs pretending there is not an historic problem that they are an integral part of. All the while poverty-class students live in the shadows and margins of the higher education landscape—if, we make it here and somehow are not pushed out (Bagadon, 2015; Burtch, 2006; Lynch, 2010). Thus, to exclude a social class analysis is to cut a swath through the population. That is, the ongoing exclusion of those unlucky enough to be born on the wrong side of the social class tracks (Sayer, 2005, 2002) from accessing, surviving and thriving in university. To illustrate, Reay (2017) writes, “The way class works in [UK] education shifts and changes over time, but what do not change are the gross inequalities that are generated through its working” (p. 8). To put it another way, higher education institutions continue to preserve universities as sites of privilege that contribute to perpetuating injustice, inequality and social stratification (Brady, Blome & Kleider, 2016). As Brady and Burton (2017) say, the same holds true for social science and humanities scholars “who are not exempt from contributing to unresolved issues regarding poverty” (p. 1; Lynch, ). I go further and argue that Canadian universities are complicit in perpetuating more than class elitism: They are complicit in perpetuating (generational) poverty. They are complicit as key actors in contributing to systemic human rights violations by excluding poverty-class students in decolonial equity, diversity and inclusion commitments (Porter & Jackman, 2014, p. 2). Sense making of this quagmire, while I live in fear of carrying on my family’s poverty legacy, is incessantly exhausting.

In contending with “neoliberalism’s war on higher education” (Giroux, 2014), the shift from a war on poverty to a war on the poor (Santiago, 2015), the relentless “poor-bashing [and] the politics of exclusion” (Swanson, 2004; Giroux, 2014), the dismantling of social support systems and unsustainable student loan debt (and the current and future ramifications of COVID-19), I struggle to find any semblance of hope for the escalating inequality and inequity that is shattering every nook and cranny of the world and its inhabitants. Trying to push the privileged pillars of Canadian universities to widen access and participation (WAP) in higher education for poverty-class students (PCS), to get the elite university masses to understand there is no intersectionality without social class, seems as futile as Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1954). How can WAP policies and practices matter when the world is figuratively and literally on fire? When the world is imploding? How can poverty-class people become a crucial demographic to Canadian universities when they are not financially lucrative? How can any of this matter in institutions that continue to exist for the elite? Yet, education is crucial to mitigate (generational) poverty (Burtch, 2006) and create civically engaged citizens (Friere, 2016). I believe(d), armed with my lived experiences, knowledge, master’s research findings and belief in that I could create a WAP-shift at the University of Victoria (UVic)—if, I just demonstrated the why and how….

Context of the study: Build a table

“But what I’ve learned about generational poverty is that if I want to improve the outcomes for students inside the classroom, I have to be intentional about what happens to them outside the classroom.”

Russell D. Lowery-Hart
Amarillo College president

I created opportunities at UVic to bring social class and poverty discrimination (and stigma) to tables. After sitting on plentiful upstairs tables and being excluded from EDI-based tables, I knew that I needed to build a table. With the encouragement of EQHR and FGS, in 2018, I launched the Shoestring Initiative (www.shoestringinitiative.com) at UVic. This is the first-of-its-kind grassroots initiative at a Canadian university to support university community members with lived experiences of persistent childhood poverty. Based on research, I developed the following initial iterative model with the intention that it would be shaped by and for communities:

The model was not embraced; I swiftly learned it was never going to be a collective vision. 

It is therefore not surprising that things were askew from the onset. First, disparate agendas rapidly collided. For instance, there were working-class/poverty-class divides, student-professor power imbalances, Shoestring being used as an academic career booster, the misappropriation of my research, the onus of building and sustaining Shoestring fell to me, and overall colonial and neoliberal institutional creep–iness. Second, I was pressured to register Shoestring as a UVic student club, which might then be tucked away in the SUB basement; that is, if there was space. The logic expanded to the belief that there would be an influx of poverty-class students eager to volunteer or more aptly articulated, willing to perform unpaid labour—if only there was a space. Third, I was pushed to register Shoestring as a charity (which costs money short- and long-term). The reasoning was that I could spend more time with my palms outstretched begging for charity. Fourth, I knocked on a lot of doors and was never able to secure space to build and support a community. As a result, I did not have the ability to even host the most meagre monthly gatherings. Further, I had to store Shoestring supplies in my bedroom, cook food in my shared apartment/study space/research office/workspace and rely upon my roommate to shop, run errands and transport supplies to events. Fifth, even those who are cognizant of social class inequality and inequity at UVic were not willing to take on another service role particularly if it was not directly related to their research focus. Sixth, I worked full-time trying to build and sustain Shoestring as an unpaid student alongside a heaping plate of responsibilities and challenges of my own. Above all, the financial and non-economic costs were staggering. Finally, I came to realize that no matter how many letters I wrote, conversations I had, evidence-based presentations I gave, hiring committees I sat on and contributions I made, I lack the economic, cultural and academic clout to see any intersectional EDI shifts that might get WAP for PCS to any table (I kept fieldnotes of my experiences). This does not mean the actual or imagined idea of WAP-based initiatives for PCS at Canadian universities is hopeless.

June 5, 2019: It has taken 2 years to regain fragile hope. School transcripts. don’t show this. Stories about me don’t show this.

From my field notes

To find out more, contact Elaine at elaberge@uvic.ca


Outliers imagining otherwise in and for universities

February 17, 2020

PhD Candidacy Examination Paper

Many emotions drove me to write Miseducation – sorrow, guilt, pride, anger, righteous indignation, regret, anxiety, and fear. But above all a sense of urgency and desperation that, as a woman approaching 70, time was running out. (Reay, 2018, p. 453)

As of late, I know these emotions, particularly relentless fear, anxiety, and regret. These latent feelings manifest as 55-year-old righteous indignation—and, rage—at the death-grip of colonial justifications for poverty. Poverty-based discrimination, violence, and exclusion continue to suffocate and decimate. I intimately know the urgency and desperation the sociology of education scholar Reay speaks of. These feelings are my constant companions, dogging me, bumping along behind me. Much like neoliberalism, these emotions are a slow violence that grinds at one’s bones until one can be forcibly shaped in ways that make Gumby seem rigid and inflexible. 

Reay (2017) writes, “The way class works in education shifts and changes over time, but what do not change are the gross inequalities that are generated through its working” (p. 8). Higher education institutions continue to preserve universities as sites of privilege that contribute to perpetuating injustice, inequality, and social stratification (Brady, Blome & Kleider, 2016). As Brady and Burton (2017) say, the same holds true for social science and humanities scholars “who are not exempt from contributing to unresolved issues regarding poverty” (p. 1). I suggest that Canadian universities are complicit in perpetuating more than class elitism: they are complicit in perpetuating (generational) poverty. Trying to push the privileged pillars of Canadian universities to widen access to, and participation in (WAP), higher education for poverty class students seems as futile as Waiting for Godot (Beckett, 1954).

Introduction

In contending with “neoliberalism’s war on higher education” (Giroux, 2014), the shift from a war on poverty to a war on the poor (Santiago, 2015), the relentless “poor-bashing [and] the politics of exclusion” (Swanson, 2004; Giroux, 2014), the dismantling of social support systems, and unsustainable student loan debt, I struggle to find any semblance of hope for the escalating inequality and inequity that is shattering every nook and cranny of the world and its inhabitants.

Nonetheless, social class is excluded from social stratification and inequality analysis. As a result, to exclude a social class analysis is to cut a swath through the population. In the identity politics (Michaels, 2006), middle-class focused, neoliberal–cum-neofeudalism era, the people who are angry about giving people a fighting chance are the ones who have never had to fight for a chance. 

How can WAP policies and practices matter when the world is figuratively and literally on fire? How can poverty-class people become a crucial demographic to universities when they are not financially lucrative? How can any of this matter in institutions that exist for the elite? Yet, education is crucial to mitigate (generational) poverty (Burtch, 2006) and create civically engaged citizens (Friere, 2016). 

In this paper, I examine higher education institutes that model alternate pathways to degree completion for poverty-class students through WAP initiatives. I begin with defining poverty in relation to my research. Although social class categories continue to shift, class demarcations are central to the sociology of higher education research I conduct. The social class I speak of are the underclass.  I then turn to describing two international and two Canadian higher education case studies. After this, I discuss theories that inform these WAP programs and how these theoretical frameworks might explain WAP program successes and challenges. I will bring the conversation full circle to discuss how these case studies offer insights into supporting poverty-class students to succeed in university.

Defining poverty

There is no definitive definition of poverty regardless of discipline (Smeeding, 2017). The lay understanding is that poverty is about money. This is understandable given how governments and researchers tend to use economic-based definitions. For instance, Canada’s new Market Basket Measurement (Heisz, 2019, n.p.) “develops thresholds of poverty based upon the cost of a basket of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and other items for individuals and families representing a modest, basic standard of living” (Heisz, 2019, n.p.). If a family’s “disposable income [is] less than the poverty threshold appropriate for their family’s size and region [they] would be living in poverty (Heisz, 2019, n.p). This does not take into consideration “ideas of the ‘culture’ of poverty and the effect of ‘place’ on poverty (Smeeding, 2017, p. 2). As such, definitions of poverty generally do not factor in the multiple manifestations of poverty. Further, monetary definitions not only reduce poverty to economics but also fail to make visible how people experience poverty, deprivation, and exclusion (Laberge, 2017). The UK sociologist McKenzie (2015) argues that poverty definitions are based upon “damaging narratives” and result in “prescriptive” policies (p. 17).

Above all, poverty should be understood through an intersectional lens (Hankivsky, 2014). That is, how multiple social characteristics (class, gender, race, age) shape lives across time, social relations, and place (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). In this way, defining poverty ensures that poverty-class students are not homogenized nor further stigmatised. 

International case studies

Amarillo College and CampusRom were chosen because these universities’ WAP programs provide holistic supports for poverty-class students. 

Amarillo College (Amarillo, Texas)

“But what I’ve learned about generational poverty is that if I want to improve the outcomes for students inside the classroom, I have to be intentional about what happens to them outside the classroom” (Russell D. Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College cited by Mangan & Schmalz, 2019, n.p.)

     In 2018, Russell Lowery-Hart decided to try an experiment: He wanted to better relate to his predominantly poverty-class, Latinx students. Many work multiple jobs. There are single mothers and caregivers to extended family members. Homelessness is a constant threat. They live with daily food insecurity (Bombardieri, 2018; Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018). The idea was to spend a weekend sleeping rough. He started out Friday night; he lasted until Sunday morning, when “the humiliation had undone him” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Unlike his students, he “was able to walk away from the homeless simulation, but only after experiencing the intense discomfort of feeling invisible and dehumanized” (Mangan & Schmalz, 2019, p. 5). Two years later, AC “has become an exemplar for what it looks like to integrate a culture of caring across campus and throughout the community” (Taylor & Ozechoski, 2020, p. 38). 

After his partial weekend homeless sojourn, he returned to AC and began the development of a two-pronged “No Excuses” audacious plan that would see a 180-degree cultural transformation and creation of responsive holistic wraparound student support. This boots-on-the grassroots-ground leader does not say that any of this is easy but he imagines otherwise. 

Shifting an institutional culture. Unlike academic leaders who hide behind status quo marketing plans, strategic enrolment schemes, and the hope-extinguishing cliché, “You know that things move at an iceberg pace in academia…,” Lowrey-Hart knows there is no time to waste. These are precarious lives that are being lived now. As he says, “It is the students in poverty who are taking the biggest gamble” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.) trying to escape poverty by accessing higher education. The foundation of AC’s cultural shift is based “on a foundational principle that ‘securing its students’ basic needs must be the first priority if AC is to deliver on its promise of providing a route out of poverty” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2; Taylor & Ozechoski, 2020). The result? A “culture of caring on campus that is driven by policies and programs and enforced from the highest level of leadership on down” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2). Contrast this praxis with Reay’s (2018) decades-long experience in academia where she was unable to create any changes to Cambridge’s WAP programs because, as she says, “With no real social connections and capital, and as an outsider to Cambridge, I had little chance” (p. 455).

Compared to Reay’s experience, AC’s “No Excuses philosophy dictates that a college is responsible for the whole student” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 8). Simply put, “students must escape the conditions of poverty” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2) if they are to graduate—and, become contributors to the economic well-being of their families, communities, and society. In this way, AC’s commitment to its civic and social responsibilities as a higher education institution is remarkable.

When his colleagues lament about the students they have, Lowery-Hart says, “Quit wishing for a different kind of student. We want to be the right college for the students we have” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Lowrey-Hart “developed what he calls the college’s theory of change. ‘Life-barrier removal’ plus relationships ‘equals completion” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). A shift in culture comes from his willingness to take to the hallways and streets. Rather than making poverty-class students and their families “both the subject and the object of investigation” (Adair, 2003, p. 45), he conducts field “research” daily by talking to current and prospective students to determine what WAP supports they need  (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.).

Beyond the norm support programs. Most higher education institutions rely on a couple of “discrete poverty programs” (e.g., food banks that operate based upon a charity model and unpaid labour) and some level of emergency funding (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Emergency funding at AC is not shame-based, stigmatizing, or traumatizing. When students need emergency funding, there is no paperwork, no begging or pleading—and, no justifying why your beater has been repossessed. AC found that just one too many times of not being able to pay a utility bill could cause a student to quit. 

At AC, there is an Advocacy and Resource Centre (ARC) that literally is and is in the heart of campus. The ARC is “staffed by social workers who assist students with”: food pantry use (Lowrey-Hart says, “We have students that use the food pantry … and then they bring food back, they’ll try to replenish it” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.), low income housing applications, accessing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, tax preparation, coaching, career mentorship, legal aid, counselling, and a clothing closet (Taylor & Ozechoski, 2020, p. 38; Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 14). AC even provides late night child care (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 14)!

AC has implemented an “alert system that flags incoming students who are at high risk of struggling academically, and then assigns professors to reach out before trouble hits” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). Further, a program has been implemented where staff contact students with dependents living far below the poverty line to ensure they are aware of the “school’s support service” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). AC is “questioning academic traditions as fundamental as the length of a semester, which has been cut in half for many classes” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). 

Bumping up against dominant class narratives. “Saying ‘the p-word’ out loud is a critical step in the right direction,” says an AC staff member (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2). The poverty-class student is not blamed for their poverty; poverty is understood as a result of structural inequity and inequality. Second, at AC they push up against the “false dichotomy [of the ‘academic’ and ‘nonacademic’ influences on students” which is critical to AC being able “to address the conditions of poverty affecting students (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2). In summary, Amarillo College “has come to embrace … an ‘institutionally supported systemic approach’ to addressing poverty” and being “a [poverty-class] student-ready college” (Goldrick-Rab & Cady, 2018, p. 2).

CampusRom (Catalaña, Spain)

The Roma of Spain have encountered violent discrimination and persecution for centuries. As Gómez et al. (2019) explain, “many people have tried to identify Roma as a problematic group and potentially criminal” (p. 2). They say that these beliefs became “official during the Third Reich” and provided justification for the mass incarceration and slaughter of the Roma people (p. 2). This discrimination has not dissipated. For instance, Roma researchers have also detected racist practices against the Roma population in the area of health, such as forced sterilization for Roma women in Eastern countries” (p. 2). Further, even today, these authors note that there are mainstream researchers who “want to deny the existence of Roma identity and to scrutinize the Roma people from the mainstream expectations of conduct” (p. 2). The discrimination against the Roma extends to exclusion from higher education in Spain. For instance, only one percent of Roma people graduate with a university degree compared to 35 percent of the rest of the Spanish population (Aranda et al., 2017, n.p.). Yet, we know that “[s]chools and communities … have a key role in reversing the cycle of inequality that the Roma suffer in Europe” (Flecha & Soler, 2013, p. 451).

Making it past junior high, let alone obtaining a highschool diploma, is impacted by complex historical and contemporary issues for most Roma (Aranda et al., 2017, n.p.). Formal education is not a priority; survival is the priority. To put it differently, family interconnectedness and supporting immediate and extended family members is a core part of the Roma value system. For these reasons, barriers to accessing and completing university are diverse: There is a need for youth (and the few students who make it to university) to “engage in street sales or scrap searching” and therefore often survive on “very limited incomes”; it is customary that Roma youth leave secondary school at a young age so they are ill-equipped to be successful with university entrance exams; universities are isolating places particularly for Roma people who rely on networked communities; and discrimination as a minority (Aranda, 2017, n.p.). The lack of WAP initiatives for the Roma has resulted in continued social, cultural, and economic exclusion from the Spanish society. The Spanish government, in response, mandated WAP initiatives for Roma people (Aranda, 2017, n.p.). In 2016, CampusRom was formed.

In essence, CampusRom is a university inside a university; it is by and for the Roma people. What is particularly unique to CampusRom is that it mirrors the Roma culture: It is built upon creating “natural networks of solidarity, a very important value within the Roma community” (Aranda, 2017, n.p.). Students receive wraparound support from Roma students and professors including group and one-on-one tutoring, confidence building, navigating university policies and procedures, finding employment, applying for scholarships and bursaries, etc. (Aranda, 2017, n.p.).

This WAP initiative also focuses on family with the belief that the education of one positively impacts the well-being of all. Further, one of the foundational principles of CampusRom is that by working with universities to increase Roma student participation and success in higher education, this will improve the social, economic, and educational status of the Roma population. As such, university entrance exam training is not only for the youth. Roma learners up to 65 years of age can also benefit from CampusRom.

CampusRom is founded upon six goals:

  1. Support Roma students over 16 years of age who are in training to write university entrance exams; 
  2. Encourage Roma students, who have studied and/or written entrance exams, to take leadership roles and mentor other students;
  3. Share knowledge and experience inside and outside of CampusRom to garner support and expand the CampusRom network;
  4. Actively engage in developing the CampusRom culture;
  5. Contribute to educating non-Roma people to address stereotypes, biases, and prejudices, and
  6. Collaborate with other networks and organizations locally, nationally, and internationally to advance the human rights of the Roma people and WAP higher education initiatives (CampusRom, 2018, https://www.campusrom.org/objectius-1). 

Today, CampusRom is the first Roma university network and is expanding beyond Catalaña. The number of Roma students who have gone to CampusRom and passed their university entrance exams remains low but it is early days (Aranda, 2017, n.p.).

Canadian Universities

Canadian universities provide a WAP conundrum: the exclusion of social class—or, an unwillingness to address classism. The following infographic depicts the formation of Canadian universities and the colonial pillars upon which they were founded:

Text Box:
First, the Federal Employment Equity Act (FEEA, 1995) states that protected groups include the “equity-seeking” groups women, visible minorities, Indigenous people, and the disabled (https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/e-5.401/page-1.html). LGBTQ2S+ was added on later. Second, Universities Canada (UC, 2017) uses the FEEA as the basis for their EDI principles, research, and advocacy (https://www.univcan.ca/media-room/media-releases/universities-canada-principles-equity-diversity-inclusion/). Third, universities in turn shape their WAP programs (if they exist) and EDI policies based on the FEEA. Thus, the exclusion of social class from WAP and EDI is the exclusion of poverty-class students at all levels of Canadian higher education institutions.

My search results for universities that provide alternate pathways to degree completion for poverty-class students, while not surprising, were nonetheless disappointing. However, I have chosen Vancouver Island University (VIU) for their pioneering efforts to support students from/in foster care. Second, I discuss Western University (WU), which has a page dedicated to first generation students. 

Vancouver Island University (Nanaimo, British Columbia)

In 2013, spurred on by the “child advocate Mary Ellen Turpell-Lafond” (Sherlock, 2019, n.p.) and Nanaimo Youth Services Association (NYSA) CEO Steve Arnette (Ret.), Dr. Ralph Nilson (Ret.), President and Vice-Chancellor of Vancouver Island University (VIU) launched the inaugural university tuition waiver program for youth from/in care who have the “right academic background” (Winn, 2016). This was a catalyst moment for youth with lived experiences of foster care. It marked the beginning of universities across Canada realizing this need existed and, to varying degrees, committing to implement some form of tution fee waiver program. Because of this, youth, who would not normally be able to imagine otherwise, potentially had the opportunity to access higher education. 

VIU is unique in its educational philosophy. Nilson believes that supporting these students requires more than financial support (Winn, 2016). He says, “As a values-based institution, the importance of access for people in this region has been fundamental … since its inception” (Winn, 2016). He goes on to note that he is aware that many in the community live below the poverty line due to the collapse of the forestry and fishing industries. This, coupled with a lack of post-secondary education, equates to a decrease in familial choices and reduced chances of children attending university. Nilson says that at the heart of VIU’s philosophy is that the university’s “faculty and staff recognize our responsibility to the communities we serve” (Winn, 2016). As such, Arnette says that when students were on the cusp of graduating from highschool they would sit down for a meal with Nilson and see the president of a university as a regular person  (Winn, 2016). This is part of creating a welcoming and supportive community from the day the student enters onto the VIU landscape. As such, access is not only about money. It is about feeling part of a community and culture that is unknown.

VIU’s community “has a sense of conscious, sense of social justice, and a true sense of caring,” says Arnette (Winn, 2016). As Nilson and Arnette note, support extends to helping students to “just starting to imagine being there” (Winn, 2016). VIU ensures that students know who to contact through, for example, “student services and financial aid” (Winn, 2016). The counsellors know which students are from foster care and consequently are able to provide personalized support. VIU also finds opportunities for students to become “engaged on campus” and find work-study programs (Winn, 2016). For Arnett, the VIU Tuition Waiver Program is sociological because he says, “This is change on the institutional level” (Winn, 2016). But the Board of Governors had to be in agreement.

When presented with the Tuition Fee Waiver program proposal, the Board “were the first ones who said that the notion of public education and access to public education is one that fits with Canadian values and social justice. That equity and opportunity” must be available for young people (Winn, 2016). 

VIU also became the first university in Canada to employ someone full-time to conduct outreach with “K-12 councellors to identify kids who don’t have a hope of moving onto that place where they can get the education” needed to contribute to society (Winn, 2016). This is a running theme with Nilson: accessing higher education so socioeconomically marginalized students can become active participants and contributors to society. He is aware that without a way out of poverty through education, the reliance on social support systems increases (Winn, 2016). Although Nilson understands that the region has a big problem with poverty, poverty-class students are not part of WAP programs. As it is, there are not enough resources to support the numbers of from/in care students let alone provide them with adequate funding. 

Western University (London, Ontario)

The Office of the Registrar’s “First Generation Students’” page provides a list of online sources that are, for the most part, applicable to all students (Western University, 2020). The Registrar encourages students to “take advantage of these programs, and to see out other opportunities available on campus that are not mentioned” on the site. Students in financial need can apply for bursaries if they have exhausted all other sources of funding (e.g., student loans, bank loans, lines of credit, borrowing money from family and friends) (Western University, 2020). WU also has an on campus work study program for students in financial need. Eligible students can apply for the the Government of Ontario First Generation Bursary, which provides between $1,000–$3,500 (Province of Ontario, 2020). WU has a Food Vouchers program for eligible students. All of these WAP mechanisms require resources: time, the ability and experience to navigate the university’s website, knowing how to fill out online forms and applications, having the ability to understand legalese, being able to provide proof of eligibility, and attend in person meetings.

Theoretical Frameworks

Four central themes emerged from these WAP case studies: centring social class using an intersectional framework, taking the sting out of the stigma of poverty, making visible the gendered nature of poverty, respecting non-academic forms of capital, creating cultures of belonging, and supporting students to become actively engaged citizens who will become the transformers that our world desperately needs. These themes will be examined through social class analysis, stigma theories, and Bourdieu’s forms of capital.

Social class analysis

Social class is a messy business. Sayer (2002) argues that “what is a fraught and highly sensitive issue for many people has all too often become, in the hands of the sociologists, a dry academic debate about social classification schema” (para 1.2). As an illustration, Savage et al. (2017) published their findings from their “BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment” (p. 219). The research was intended to provide a “new model of social class” because they state that “[w]e are now entering a third phase in the analysis of class and stratification” (pp. 219-220). Traditional social class schemas (upper, middle, working, lower, under classes), they argue, do not reflect contemporary inequality and inequity particularly in light of the growing wealth disparity and resulting social stratification and inequality (p. 220). As such, they suggest that their “third phase” class categories (elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and the precariat) are more reflective of present social ills (p. 230). I contend this is not the case, particularly for the poor. Increased social classifications do not equate to an increase in understanding of structural poverty nor a decrease in the hatred of the poor. As Giroux (2014) notes, under neoliberalism, “poverty is not seen as a social problem but as a personal failing, and poor people have become the objects of abuse, fear, and loathing” (p. 12). This argument is supported by Tyler (2015) who states that there was a “well-documented ‘retreat from class’ within sociology in the 1990s” as a mechanism to “decouple class form the inequalities effected by neoliberal reforms” (p. 487) thus shifting to a blame-the-individual culture. 

I concur with Sayer (2002) that social class matters because “it continues to figure centrally in people’s lives, especially for those who, as Beverley Skeggs so pointedly puts it, lack the privilege to be able to ignore it (Skeggs, 1997)” (para 1.2). Tyler (2015) echoes the notion that “[s]ociety can no longer look in the mirror and see social classes”; pp. 497-498) our world is understood as “capitalism without classes” (pp. 497-498). This myth of the classless society is exemplified in Canada. The Liberal government’s (2019) mantra “supporting the middle-class and those working hard to join it” (https://www.canada.ca/en/employment-social-development/corporate/jean-yves-duclos/supporting-middle-class.html) and the historic appointment of a middle-class minister, makes visible why AC, CampusRom, and to some extent VIU are remarkable for their focus on WAP initiatives that focus on poverty (i.e., the underclass). Most notable are the staff at AC purposefully use the “p-word.” Given the stigma of poverty, these universities’ WAP programs work towards destigmatizing poverty without normalizing it.

Although WU states that they have a special WAP program for first-generation students, in reality it is little more than a couple of “discrete poverty programs” (Bombardieri, 2018, n.p.). 

Stigma theories

Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma suggests that poverty is played out on front and back stages. For poverty-class students, even if social class is internalized (as social class often is), when they are on Goffman’s “front stage,” (e.g., on the elitist university landscape) they can see in the neoliberal mirror the underclass position they occupy. As such, there is an “awareness of inferiority [that] means that one is unable to keep out of consciousness the formulation of some chronic feeling of the worst sort of insecurity,” one can become isolated and further stigmatized because of this isolation (p. 13). 

Moreover, there is no escaping the dominant colonial-based social class narratives that swirl around us like the omnipresent 24-hour “news” cycles. The myth of meritocracy, imbued and embedded with the American Dream and bootstrap dogmas (Nackenoff, 1997; Weiss, 1988), is central to beliefs of the deserving and undeserving, particularly in relation to poverty-class folks. These narratives have immense stigmatizing power. The Nigerian storyteller Okri (1997) explains:

…One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted—knowingly or unknowingly—in ourselves…. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we can change our lives. (p. 46)

AC, CampusRom, and to a lesser extent VIU, exemplify how their WAP programs bump up against poverty-based discrimination stories planted in us and give their students new stories to live by. As a consequence, students in these universities are not considered less-than or deficit on the front stage/university landscape. 

Additionally, Tyler’s (2018) “critical re-reading of the understanding of” (p. 744) Goffman’s theory of stigma provides a critical feminist lens. In this way, Tyler’s “reconstruction” of Goffman’s stigma theory is a mechanism to create a paradigm shift in relation to understanding the gendered nature of poverty. That is, understanding gender-based stigma beyond the falsehood that poverty-class women are creatures of innate immorality, laziness, poor judgement, etc. Providing late night daycare for students who are single mothers, for instance, demonstrates an understanding of the potential additional barriers that poverty causes for women.

WU, conversely, further stigmatizes first-generation students by making them jump through institutional hoops to apply for emergency funding and food vouchers. This outing of a student’s financial situation, in an environment polar opposite of AC, is a way to “push out” students (i.e., forcing students to leave school because of systemic classism; Olachea, 2109, n.p.).

Bourdieu’s forms of capital theory 

Often education researchers (myself included) apply the famous turn of phrase “outcasts on the inside” (Bourdieu & Champagne 1999, p. 421) to describe low socioeconomic status (SES) students’ presence in higher education. Certainly, in much of the literature, these students lack the cultural, social, and economic capital of their well-to-do peers (Bourdieu, 1986; Iverson, 2012) on the higher education landscape. Consequently, research tends to report that low SES students are unable to feel like they belong (Lehmann, 2007) or they feign fitting in my faking it til they make it (Ivana, 2017). In the latter case, success is defined by assimilating or altering oneself to fit into the middle-class higher education culture. In the AC, CampusRom, and again, VIU to a lesser extent, the culture of mentorship and caring resulted in students finding a (second) home. In the literature accessed, it is clear that students’ social and cultural capital (e.g., kinship knowledge) was in fact valued. Their lack of economic capital was rectified by AC’s responsive financial programs. At CampusRom, emulating the Roma culture and network system of family and community interconnectedness, resulted in students being able to tap into social, cultural, and economic capital. In these two WAP case studies, students were not forced to assimilate, something that Canadian universities should take stock of in their Indigenization strategies. 

In the case of WU, poverty-class students are “outcasts on the inside.” They either fake it ‘til they make it and/or hope that they can generate enough economic capital to survive.

Individually and collectively these universities; WAP programs hold the potential for creating profound change across generations. AC, CampusRom, and VIU are explicit that the goals of completing a higher education degree is to escape poverty and to become civically engaged citizens. These WAP programs are structured to provide poverty-class students with the education, skills, and tools to become critical thinkers. That is, to “take the initiative in acting to transform the society that has denied them his opportunity of participation” (Shaull, 2000, p. 34; Friere, 2016). 

Conclusion

Each day, turtle-paced moves forward are countered with hare-leap pushes backward, the minuscule wins and the cavernous loses, make me wonder, can universities ever be inclusive of those whose lives are shaped by poverty? Amarillo College and CampusRom, and to some extent Vancouver Island University provide hope. Their WAP programs centre social class and include an intersectional lens, disrupt poverty-based stigma and make visible the gendered nature of poverty, they demonstrate that poverty-classed students come onto the higher education landscape with powerful forms of capital—and, with a culture of caring, mentorship, advocacy, and support the oppressed will become the ones to tackle the inequality, inequity, and injustice that is crippling our world. These universities are the outliers imagining otherwise in and for universities. (4,997)

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