McMaster program gives high school students a taste of university

The Reach Ahead program is aimed at students who may not have considered attending university.
High school students were given McMaster IDs and access to the campus. (CBC)

The idea is simple: give high school students a chance to experience university life and they might be more likely to attend university when they graduate.

And so far, the McMaster Reach Ahead program is working.

"We do know from our conversations with the students that a number of them were in the process of applying [for university]," Peter Joshua, superintendent of leadership and learning for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, told CBC Hamilton.

"They had made that decision to apply, so now we'll see what happens."

The McMaster Reach Ahead program had its first pilot group this past fall. The Grade 12 students from the Catholic and public school boards spent a semester getting a feel for life as a McMaster University student.

They took a university course every morning, while continuing their high school studies in the afternoon. Complete with McMaster ID passes and access to the campus, they were given a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of post-secondary students.

The students were chosen because, though highly successful academically, they might not have considered attending university before having such an on-campus experience.

"It could be a financial barrier or maybe no one else in their family has gone to university," Joshua explained.

"There were those that had the potential but did not have the support at home."

Although the barriers these students face still remain, the program was intended to motivate them to overcome these obstacles, according to Kate Elliott, a leadership and learning consultant for the HWDSB.

"It's a little bit of 'if you build it, they will come,' " she said. "By setting a goal, the students are able to come up with plans for how to get there. That might mean applying for scholarships or bursaries or just maintaining their grade level."

Board mulling the program's future

The board is now consulting to decide if the program will continue next year, but from the feedback they've gotten from the students, the trial run was a success. Many of those who participated in the pilot program have decided to apply to university and are anxiously awaiting acceptance letters for the fall 2013 semester.

Sandra Preston, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and director of experiential education at McMaster University, taught the students twice a week as part of their three-unit sociology class. She said she learned as much from the experience as the students.

"Besides meeting a bunch of smart, cool kids, I learned a lot about what students need to succeed in first year," she said. "They were much more open about the challenges they were facing than my first-year students."

Students discussed the transition between high school and university-level courses, pointing out how the change puts a heavy emphasis on critical thinking and independent learning.

There are similar programs at other school boards in the province and the HWDSB provides similar support for students interested in college or apprenticeships, Joshua said. He's hopeful this particular project will get the green light again next year based on the success of the pilot.

"The whole plan is to give students a sense of what the next steps are, no matter what they want to do after high school."