"As a parent, it's my job to inspire my children to explore their interests and develop the skills they need to succeed in life," says Susan Williams, whose daughter Camryn will be among the second cohort to complete the Achievement Program at Lakehead University.
"When she gets to learn and explore alongside her peers, and with her mentors, it makes a big difference."
The Achievement Program has come a long way since its inception in 2013. So too have its students, who have lifted the program, and most importantly, themselves, to new levels of accomplishment in their studies and personal development.
Count Camryn Williams, who turned 18 this year and is on track to graduate at the top of her class at Hammarskjold High School in Thunder Bay, among them. But getting to the top wasn't easy. Looking back, Camryn overcame some early challenges in her scholastic career that threatened to stifle her future aspirations.
"Back in grade three, I was two levels behind where my reading skills should have been," recalls Camryn. "I was getting Cs in my classes, and I wasn't very happy about that."
At that point, Susan decided that Camryn needed some extra help to get her literacy skills caught up, so she enrolled her in a summer literacy camp through Lakehead Public Schools (LPS) for the next two years. Lakehead University partnered with LPS to deliver these camps by offering on-campus programming to augment the literacy camp.
From there, Lakehead's Achievement Program evolved to deliver not only academic programming, but also life skills and recreation programming to young people aged 9 to 18. It created a connection among youth to learn, play and grow together at Lakehead University. The Program also serves as an introduction for youngsters who wonder what happens on campus at Lakehead.
For Camryn, the Achievement Program helped her get back on track academically, as she saw her C's turn into A's the following year, but it wasn't easy.
"Those were the hardest times, when I first started," recalls Camryn. "Being a kid in grade 3, having to get on the bus with all new kids, to the big buildings at LU, it was intimidating. But by the end of the day, we were all having fun and laughing together."
Looking back, the Achievement Program made the transition to high school a lot easier. Meeting new people and learning new subjects wasn't as hard.
Statistically speaking, being an Indigenous girl also poses daunting barriers to Camryn's success. According to Statistics Canada, 78% of Indigenous girls in Ontario attain a high school diploma by the time they are in their early twenties, compared to 94% of non-indigenous girls. One of the central aims of the Achievement Program is to promote access to mentorship and academic opportunities for Indigenous youth across the region. For Camryn, it's been a great fit.
"What I liked most was the diversity of subjects, and that I was able to choose which ones I wanted to participate in," Camryn says. She remembers learning how to find the age of trees, how to build a car out of recycled waste, and winning a race against her peers. Forestry and engineering lessons were great exposure for her, but she discovered a sincere interest in the nursing through the Achievement Program.
"Exploring the labs and getting to use the equipment and simulated patients was really cool and interactive," says Camryn. "I was able to see and feel what going to nursing school would be like. I can't wait to start next fall."
While Susan is a practising health professional, she insists that Camryn's decision to pursue nursing was completely her own.
"Skills like goal setting, time management, basic finances, and an active lifestyle have shown so much in Camryn," Susan says proudly. "The Program has really evolved from being once or twice a year to become an ongoing connection between kids and the University. It's brought together mentors and youth. They've watched them grow up, and the kids are better prepared to make decisions about life and education after high school. And at a practical level, the skills they learn will stay with them no matter what they decide."
Not only is the Achievement Program geared to encourage young leaders to reach their goals after high school, it's also about nurturing the connection with the community so that more people feel at home at Lakehead University, through ongoing engagement and developing life skills with young people.
Students who successfully complete the Achievement Program are eligible for financial support, to a maximum of the first year of tuition at Lakehead. These funds can also be used toward other postsecondary educational expenses. Thanks to generous support and ongoing fundraising efforts, the Achievement Program is offered through a partnership with regional school boards at no cost to families.