African-Canadian Youth and the Transition from High School to Post-Secondary



In this month’s Spotlight we’re speaking with Michelle Davis, Coordinator, Partnership Development (Acting), Educational Partnership Office at the Toronto District School Board. Michelle has some great insights into the unique issues facing African-Canadian youth as they move through High School and into University or College.


CICMH: What is the number one hurdle faced by black students when transitioning from High School to University or College?

Michelle: One of the main hurdles faced by African-Canadian students in their transition from secondary to postsecondary studies is sometimes moving from a school of 600, 800 or 1200 students to campuses with 20, or 30 or even 50 times that size. It is sometimes difficult for students to find a sense of community on large urban campuses with peers who share similar interests, student clubs and activities, as well as supportive faculty and staff. Couple this with racism that African-Canadian students experience from faculty, staff and their peers and together this transition can be very difficult for some students.

CICMH: What would you recommend as a best practice for universities to help African-Canadian students transition more easily?

Michelle: Having taught at universities and now currently at a college, I really like the cohort model that colleges have wherein a student enrolls in a program and moves through the program with their peers in that program. This model seems to help students build stronger and deeper relationships within their cohort. This group also serves as their future professional network as they transition to the work world. So, colleges and universities can help to foster students’ sense of community by building peer-to-peer groups where students support each other both in and outside of the classroom.

CICMH: What issues do you see in the available mental health supports when it comes to accommodating the needs of black students?

Michelle: Anti-Black racism can be very traumatic for young people and this is not adequately reflected in educational and health systems. Racism is identified as a social determinant of health but I’m not confident that mainstream health supports reflect this. Mental health supports also need to include cultural competency so care providers are able to support African-Canadian students in unpacking the hurt, disappoint and even trauma that they have experienced as children, youth and as young adults. Also, these supports have to understand the diversity of this group of students who may be first or second generation Canadians, identify as LGBTQ+, have disabilities, be of mixed heritage, etc.

CICMH: What do you feel are some good first steps in addressing anti-black racism in educational and healthcare institutions?

Michelle: I think some great first steps are first to acknowledge that anti-black racism exists and the very real and negative effects on students. Also, these institutions need to live their commitments to equity and look at which students are on their campuses or seeking services at their sites and ask them about their specific needs. Thirdly, continued professional learning for faculty and staff around anti-black racism is really needed where staff and faculty can share promising practices and deconstruct and eliminate hurtful ones.

CICMH: Do black students typically make use of mental health resources? Why or why not?

Michelle: African-Canadian students sometimes make use of mental health supports but because of past disappointments they may have experienced with institutions, in addition to the stigma around mental health there are certainly barriers to seeking support. Sometimes it takes some time to be able to name how someone is feeling or what they are experiencing as impacting their mental health and well-being.

I taught a postsecondary student who I referred to the student health centre for mental health support because of the harassment he was experiencing from another faculty member. I’m not sure that the student recognized the stress that he was feeling. He could name the racism but did not connect it with how he was feeling.

I had another student years ago who disclosed her experience of fleeing civil unrest and being raped. We cried together in my office. African-Canadian students are often dealing with so many issues, in addition to trying to complete their studies.

CICMH: What do you think universities and colleges can do to better accommodate these types of refugee students who have recently experienced traumatic conflict?

Michelle: This is such an important issue. Fleeing your country of origin, living in a refugee camp and travelling to new country must be exhausting and terrifying, yet refugees and newcomers are also filled with such hope. Universities and colleges need to ensure newcomer students know of the range of services available to them both on and off campus, ensure that the services and programs on-campus are delivered by culturally competent staff and are culturally appropriate. Schools need to also enhance students’ incredible resiliency but also be able to identify and make referrals for students with more complex mental health needs.

Educators (teachers and faculty) and peers sometimes help to point students towards seeking support and accessing mental health resources. Programs and services should ensure to tap into these persons who can be credible conduits.

CICMH: At CICMH, we’ve been focusing recently on the benefit of peer supports as an effective student mental health tool. Do you feel there are further opportunities for this in the African-Canadian student community?

Michelle: Absolutely! African Canadian students, like most students, turn to their peers for advice and support so being able to use peer networks and relationships to also support student mental health and well-being is an important tool. Many campuses have African Canadian student groups. These students and student leaders would really appreciate supporting their peers in this way.

CICMH: Is diversity an issue when it comes to mental health resources for students?

Michelle: I feel that the issue is more than diversity and inclusion but that of cultural competency. For example, do healthcare providers understand the important role of faith and spirituality for many African-Canadian students? Do they recognize that prayer and meditation may be tools used by these students? Do mental health resources acknowledge racism as a trigger, as well as a source of trauma and sometimes shame? A cultural competence approach centres services and supports around the cultural specificities of the person seeking support. This can be a very effective model in providing help that is meaningful and culturally relevant.
Frontline healthcare providers also need to provide safe spaces for African-Canadian students and make time to build trust and rapport with them as part the support they provide.

CICMH: Where can health care providers access the proper training or resources that can help to improve issues around cultural competency?

Michelle: OCASI offers a range of training for persons working with newcomers and refugees. Taibu Community Health Centre has a mandate to serve African Canadian communities across the GTA and is another source of information and training. African Canadian Heritage Association and Woodgreen Community Services Rites of Passage Process both have extensive experience working with youth and their families using African-centred principles. These are some of the organizations that have the expertise to provide professional learning and development.


We’d like to thank Michelle for taking the time to speak with us, and for providing some much needed insight into the ongoing issues facing African-Canadian students.

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