The transition from high school to college isn't just a change of scenery; it's a shift that brings a whole new set of challenges and opportunities. With experience across both sectors of education, Cherilyn Scobie Edwards, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, has worked tirelessly to widen access and break down the barriers to success.
Cherilyn sat down with GoodCourse to discuss issues including preparing students for higher education, the debate around free speech on campus, and creating a safe and inclusive learning community.
I sit on the executive team of the University of Toronto, Scarborough, as the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the campus. I was drawn here by the university’s strategic plan for Inclusive Excellence. After reading about the plan and speaking to the people involved, I realized that the university was pushing the envelope in a way I hadn’t seen before. People here aren’t afraid to go to uncomfortable places, and that allows us to break new ground.
It’s connected with what I’m doing now. I was a school board principal for a high school, so I had a good idea of where students wanted to go, whether in higher education or the workplace. That helped me understand which institutions students felt comfortable with. In this role, it’s vital to know about the conversations students have before they even consider coming to your space. If you want to remove the barriers to entry, you need to understand the work that’s going on in high schools and to keep that work going.
Before joining Toronto, I was on track to become a school superintendent. So when I arrived at the university, the Ontario Principal’s Council contracted me to support future superintendents who wanted to learn more about barriers to access. Although I’ve now left that field of education, I’m fortunate to be able to use that experience to help others in the present.
I’ve been honored to be a part of some excellent initiatives and there are so many. One that stands out to me, Professor Katie Larson runs the Curriculum Working Circle, a group of students, staff, and faculty working together to unpack the curriculum to determine how to make it more inclusive, identify areas where student voices are missing, and discover areas where bias exists. We want to make sure our content is relevant but also have an authentic approach to teaching and learning. It’s about speaking the truth instead of masking or hiding things. Working closely with our students, we find out what’s important to them and take it to the executive team to bring those conversations to life. We’re also improving our access progress, pairing prospective students with mentors, and increasing the availability of resources.
We have a series called National Dialogues, which brings in people from institutions across the nation to have tough conversations. We’re currently thinking about topics for the next iteration of our series, and some people have suggested we choose free speech. This is not final but I do believe that this conversation is a very important one. The question is how to make sure students exercise the freedom to state their beliefs in a way that is safe and respectful. It’s not our aim to make sure everyone agrees or disagrees: instead, we want to model how to have difficult conversations, and how to respect differences of opinion. I think we need to focus on how to disagree rather than what is being said. That being said, students don’t have the right to insult or endanger others. We want to make sure that speech doesn’t translate into policies that might have a detrimental effect on people.
We need to ask students what it means for them to feel safe. Is it about safe spaces? Is it about belonging? Is it about having someone to talk to? Sometimes, it’s about having the key people in place to allow students to feel secure — that can be as simple as who is on the walls of the halls of our institutions. We also need to think about the relationship between students and the people who are tasked with safety. We need to create trust. Safety is built on relationships: you need to bring people around the table and have those tough conversations if you want to get to the bottom of issues.
We’re in a beautiful time where students aren’t afraid to say what they really believe. Students are very comfortable coming to me to express their concerns and make their voices heard. But not every student feels empowered to do that. So we need to give them other ways to express themselves, whether it’s through study hall or student groups. Sometimes, I think students don’t speak out for fear of reprisal, so we need to make sure they are free to express their opinions in a respectful way. It’s important that we hear from everybody so that we can build a more inclusive community.
You have to take risks. You need to remember who you were when you went through education. How does that compare to what students are facing today? You might need to say the things no one else is saying to light the spark and help things move forward.