It was unbelievable to Rashelle Litchmore that her high school guidance counsellor could conclude that she would not make it to university because her Biology mark in her first semester was in the mid-70s.
She was fairly new to West Hill Collegiate Institute and to Canada, having arrived from Jamaica a few months earlier in July 2001 after completing the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) exams.
Litchmore’s mark in the science subject improved to “A” by the end of the school year and she was admitted to the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. She however could not easily dismiss the guidance counsellor’s hasty assessment.
“That hit me because it was like that individual, who is supposed to mentor and help young people, had already made up their mind that I was not university material,” said Litchmore who graduated with a Psychology degree in 2008 and is set to enter the University of Guelph-Humber in September to pursue her Masters and PhD in Applied Social Psychology.
“I was not really worried because I know my capabilities and what I could do. I was not about to let that person determine where I was going in life. What bothered me was the negative effects such remarks can have on other young people who may feel that they are not worthy of attending university. That was what I found the most damaging in what the guidance counsellor said. It just seems that some of them have lower expectations of Black students and they are quick to stream them into colleges.”
In her second year in university, Litchmore established the Imani Mentorship Program (IMP) that pairs university students with local elementary and high school pupils. Prior to the mentorship program, the university’s Black Students’ Alliance helped a handful of students in the community with their homework.
“The aim of the new mentorship project was to encourage young people from the Galloway and Scarborough communities close to the U of T Scarborough campus to pursue post-secondary education,” said Litchmore who attended Campion College in Kingston, Jamaica before coming to Canada. “We wanted to give them a feel of what post-secondary education is like.”
Three years ago when the program’s future was in doubt because of shrinking funds, former Ontario Cabinet Minister Mary Anne Chambers successfully lobbied the university to continue the initiative which is now administered through the U of T Department of Student Life for Grade Nine and Ten students from West Hill, Cedarbrae, Pope John Paul Catholic Secondary, St. Margaret’s Public and St. Edmund Campion Catholic.
As a parting gift to the community when she quit politics, Chambers made a substantial five-year financial commitment to help sustain the program.
“I believe in mentorship and I chose to support the program because it contains all the right ingredients,” said Chambers. “Having students mentor other students in a university setting helps young people to understand that it is appropriate to have big dreams.”
She also believed in Litchmore’s ability to grow the project.
After graduating from university, Litchmore secured employment with the academic institution as a community engagement facilitator. In her new role, she was also responsible for presenting post-secondary education as a viable option for visible minority youths in addition to increasing the university’s profile.
“There are many young people in the designated priority neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area whose parents did not go to college or university,” she said. “We wanted to get these kids to aspire to become the first in their family to attend a post-secondary institution…Just seeing the kids realise that they are part of something bigger makes me emotional.”
Litchmore is confident the program will survive after she leaves to pursue graduate studies.