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How one TMU leader values access to education

Q&A with interim provost and vice-president, academic, on World Access to Higher Education Day
By: Kaitlyn McGuirk
November 15, 2022
A group of students sitting on stairs studying and talking with laptops on their laps.

TMU has been championing World Access to Higher Education Day since its launch in 2018 and strongly believes that access to education transforms lives and communities.

When interim provost Roberta Iannacito-Provenzano went to university, she was the first in her family to attend. So she understands the importance of accessible pathways for post-secondary students who may face barriers to education.

On Thursday, November 17, TMU joins global institutions in marking the fifth World Access to Higher Education Day, external link, an opportunity for institutions and organizations worldwide to tackle barriers and explore solutions to address existing and growing barriers to higher education.

We chatted with Iannacito-Provenzano about what access to higher education means to her, how she has supported access throughout her career and her hope for the future of the university.

What does access to higher education mean to you? Why does it matter?

For me, access to higher education is not only about removing barriers and providing opportunities for students to get to university. It is also about supporting and encouraging them to succeed once they are here so that they have a positive student experience and are able to flourish, learn and graduate. It’s important that we open doors and create avenues for students to get the support they need rather than waiting for them to come to us.

Access matters because a post-secondary education is a powerful tool, and though it is not the only path to success, in many fields it is a requirement. It extends numerous benefits to students and to our society from higher earnings and higher employment rates to greater social, cultural and civic engagement.

What kind of challenges or obstacles did you face in obtaining your education?

I was the first in my family to go to university and then the first to earn a PhD. My parents immigrated to Canada in 1965 from a small depressed region in Italy. They worked really hard to give me the possibility to go to university but it was still difficult to understand and navigate the system without help.

I know this is something that a lot of students still struggle with. If post-secondary education is not the norm in your family it can be hard to start down that path on your own. I am happy that we have programs at TMU, like Spanning the Gaps, that offer transitional programming and accessible pathways to those who otherwise may have not had the opportunity to experience post-secondary education.

How have you supported access to higher education throughout your career?

Access to education has always been important to me, I am particularly passionate about access to different forms of education. I really believe in students being able to access study-abroad opportunities and have worked to help create scholarships for those who wanted to study abroad but could not afford it.

I was fortunate to have taught in Florence, Italy for a few summers as part of a study abroad program and I have seen first-hand how students' lives can be transformed by being exposed to a new culture, a different language and a new way of doing things. Some of these students had never had the opportunity to leave Toronto so that was a rewarding experience. Global learning opportunities, both on and off campus, need to be accessible to all students so that they can develop global competencies and grow into our leaders of tomorrow.

How are access and equity intertwined and why is it an important issue for us to tackle at TMU?

Access and equity are deeply intertwined. We don’t only need access, we need equitable access. Our commitment to equity is embedded in everything we do at TMU and we can’t talk about equity but then have barriers to access.

A major strength of our university comes from the diversity of our community – and as a public institution, we have an obligation to be an open and transparent place that uplifts equity-deserving groups to ensure we are inclusive of diverse people, perspectives and opinions. I think this is what we have done with our law school, which is based on increasing access, in that admissions considers many factors other than grades to ensure that our students come from a range of social, economic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

What is your hope for the future of the university in relation to access to higher education?

My hope is that we continue to be bold and transformational so that a TMU education is within reach for students who want to be here. I hope that we continue to diversify our curriculum, like we have done with the Black studies minor and LGBTQ2S+ minor, to make it more inclusive for students to see themselves in university. To increase accessibility, it’s important that students see themselves reflected in the classroom, among other students, as professors, as researchers and in their future profession.

I am also very hopeful about our School of Medicine where we are reimagining and envisioning something different. We are striving to create a medical school that is intentionally inclusive and where students who have a passion to become a doctor can pursue their medical education regardless of the barriers they face or their circumstances.

To learn more about the programs and services across the university that aim to support students throughout their time at TMU, visit the following websites:

  • Tri-Mentoring, a student mentoring initiative that eases the transition into first year;
  • The Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, which helps faculty members develop inclusive teaching practices that enrich the student learning experience;
  • The Aboriginal Foundations Program, designed for Aboriginal community members who seek to broaden their opportunities toward academic success; 
  • Access TMU, a university-wide initiative with the goal of removing barriers to the full participation of all community members with disabilities; and
  • Spanning the Gaps, which offers programs to expand educational opportunities and build educational capacity across communities in the Greater Toronto Area.
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Spanning the Gaps offers life-transforming pathways to higher education

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