How a program for students in need helped this GTA man get the career he always wanted

Pathways to Education helps youth break the cycle of poverty by providing financial support, tutoring, career guidance and a community for lower-income students, many of them newcomers.

Muzammil Syed, a graduate of Pathways to Education, says it 'expanded our horizons'

Muzammil Syed always dreamed of working in health care and says the Pathways to Education program helped him make that dream a reality. (Submitted by Pathways to Education)

Muzammil Syed always dreamed of working in health care but had no idea how to go about charting a path.

Then, thanks to a fellow newcomer, he found out about a community program that aims to break the cycle of poverty through education. Syed, who came to Toronto from Saudi Arabia at age 15, joined Pathways to Education and never looked back.

He went on to earn a master's degree and is now a medical researcher at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital.

"A lot of newcomers come from countries where they don't necessarily choose a vocation; sometimes I think we just take any job because that's all we know," Syed told CBC News. 

"Pathways kind of expanded our horizons. It says, 'Hey, this is an option, but it's not the only option.'"

Young people like Syed are exactly who Pathways to Education aims to reach. The free program provides financial support, tutoring, career guidance and a community for lower-income students, many of them newcomers — something the organization says is particularly critical given that as many as 50 per cent of youth in low-income communities don't earn a diploma.

'A culture of high expectations'

"In these communities, when the dropout rates were so high, it was so common that students just accepted that it might be their future," said Quinn Bingham, one of Pathways to Education Canada's vice presidents.

But this program "creates something I think is really critical and that is a culture of high expectations," Bingham said.

"They have a peer group that's saying, "No, you're part of us, we are all going to graduate."

The program recognizes high school graduation as a step on someone's journey, not an end point, Bingham says. 

It also works with existing community partners that may already have a physical space and have the trust of the community already, he says.

Pathways To Education provides tutoring and financial assistance. It helps young people discover their career paths, while emphasizing that getting a high school diploma is just one part of the journey, not the last step. (Submitted by: Pathways to Education)

For some families, the financial component of the program is what gets young people across the convocation stage. 

Bingham recalls a family that was excited to have both daughters join the program, "because they were struggling to decide which of the two girls could go to school on a given day. They couldn't afford the transit tokens." 

Transit tokens are one of many financial offerings. Others include money for school supplies. Graduating students also receive $2,000 that they can put toward post-secondary education, buying new work clothes and equipment or whatever they need in their next steps after high school, he says.

Tutoring is another big one, he says. Many families the program works with would not be able to afford tutoring and parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet might not have as much time to help their children with academic challenges themselves, Bingham says.

Program gets $1M from Scotiabank

Pathway to Education runs on a mix of government grants and individual and corporate donations, some of which it solicits on its website. 

With a recent investment of nearly $1 million from Scotiabank, the free program will help even more young people, Bingham says. 

Matthew Teghtmeyer, a manager at a Pathways to Education program run by community partner Pinecrest-Queensway Community Health Centre in Ottawa, says he thinks using community partners has made all the difference in bringing youth into the fold because of the years of trust the centre has earned.

"It makes it easy to recruit youth for the program," he said. When people are coming to the centre for other things, from using a food bank to attending a parenting program, the centre lets them know about Pathways to Education, he says.

Matthew Teghtmeyer, a manager at a community program in Ottawa, says high school graduation rates have climbed by about 30 per cent since Pathways To Education started in his area. (Submitted by: Matthew Teghtmeyer)

The centre has also been keeping score, measuring graduation rates.

In 2007, when the program began, the community served by the centre in west-end of Ottawa had a high school graduation rate of only 52 per cent, he says. But now, 80 per cent of students are graduating from high school and many are completing their post-secondary education as well. 

Syed attended YouthLink, a community partner with the program in Scarborough. Alejandra Cabezas, a senior manager there, says the increases in graduation rates and marks are one thing, but there is also a lot to the program that can't be measured. 

"Being transplanted as a young person isn't easy," she said. "To feel like you belong here matters. People know you. You are no longer the person who just got here. All you have to say is you are part of Pathways and someone else will say, "Me too.'"

When youth are facing challenges at school or with what they'd like to do next, they suddenly have the support of a whole institution behind them, she says.

Cabezas says while the program is for youth, it impacts whole communities, because parents with youth in the program connect and alumni return and help out. People become more invested in the well-being of their community. 

Meanwhile, Syed has something to say to everyone hearing about the program and wondering if it's really for them.

"Sign up. You don't have much to lose."


Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.