Overcoming prejudice and preconceptions

During Hooked on School Days, McGill Education student speaks out about the challenges faced by students coming from disadvantaged situations
“Where you live, doesn’t define who you are,” says Sihem Youbi, in response to the prejudice she faces as someone raised in low-rental housing

Sihem Youbi is committed to education. “I’ve always, always wanted to be a teacher,” says the second-year Education undergraduate who aspires to become an elementary school teacher. “It’s one of the greatest jobs there is because teachers can have such a positive impact on the lives of children.”

The irony is that Youbi was raised in low-rental housing which put her in a demographic that is at higher risk for dropping out.

Luckily, Youbi isn’t the type to be pigeonholed by demographics. “Where you live, doesn’t define who you are,” she says.

Hooked on School Days

Quebec has a well-documented problem with students dropping out of high school. A 2018 report by the Institut du Québec showed that only 64 per cent of Quebec public school students successfully high school within five years – the lowest of any province.

February 17 – 21 is Hooked on School Days – which encourages students, parents, school officials and policy makers to discuss the issues that have led have contributed to this dire situation.

“We want everybody to have the opportunity to discuss education, discuss perseverance in school, and to have this moment to focus on this issue,” says Audrey McKinnon, Hooked on School, Campaign Director. “It’s a huge social problem and the more people take part in the discussion, the better it is.”

One of those people joining the discussion is Youbi, a spokesperson for La foundation de l’Office municipal d’habitation de Montréal, an organization that supports youth living in low-rental housing and encourages them apply themselves in school. She was featured in a recent Huffington Post article and co-authored an op-ed in La Presse.

The search for study space

In her interview with the Reporter, Youbi remembered one apartment in which her family lived that was so small there was no adequate space to study.

“People don’t think about it, but having that quiet space to do your work is really important,” she says. “And our high schools aren’t adequately equipped to provide students with study space. I would go to the library, but it closed at 6.”

“Unfortunately, they give you a lot of homework but not a lot of options on where to do it,” says Youbi.

While it isn’t true of her family, Youbi knows students living in low-rental housing who, because of financial constraints, couldn’t afford tutors or needed to work while also going school. It’s a difficult balancing act that sometimes leads to a person dropping out.

But it isn’t always the case. “In my building everyone has a job and children are in schools from elementary to university,” she says. “Much of it comes from the parents. My parents value education very much and I’ve had great support from them – but I know this is not always the case for everybody.”

Prejudice and preconceptions

The biggest obstacle facing students in low-rental housing isn’t economics, says Youbi, it’s prejudice.

“When people hear you live in low-rental housing, their attitude changes. They think our parents don’t work, they think we aren’t motivated and we won’t be successful. There’s a lot of prejudice and preconceived notions,” Youbi says. “I have friends [living in low-rental housing] who aren’t ashamed of where they come from but who feel shame because of the way people perceive them.”

The prejudice can have an adverse impact on a person’s sense of self – especially critical during the charged high school years.

McKinnon says support and a student’s self-esteem plays a huge role in their academic career. “We need to encourage our children. We conducted a survey of children who had thought about dropping out and, at the top of the list of factors that kept them in school was encouragement,” she says. “It’s a powerful motivator and it sends a signal to children that we are there for them, that they can do it, and that they can pick themselves up even after they fall.”

“You never know what each small gesture or words of encouragement can do for a child,” says says McKinnon. “Don’t underestimate the impact you can have on a child’s life.”

“The motivation to go to school has to come from yourself but it also is encouraged and supported by the people around you,” says Youbi. “It’s teamwork.”