Why Education Is the Key to a Better Life Outcome and Social Equity

Why Education Is the Key to a Better Life Outcome and Social Equity

Why Education Is the Key to a Better Life Outcome and Social Equity

Education has the potential to dismantle barriers, amplify voices and increase inclusive opportunities. It also has the power to drive social change and inclusion. Dr. Stephanie Zhou, an advocate for inclusive education, shares this view about the potential of education to empower and advance equity among marginalized groups. Dr. Zhou is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Clinical Director of Addiction Medicine at Sunnybrook Hospital and on the Board of Toronto Public Health. She is also the recipient of the Ascend Canada 2024 Social Impact Award for her outstanding leadership and impact in the community, most notably for developing the first Financial Literacy Curriculum at the University of Toronto, her instrumental role in Toronto’s Mental Health and Substance Use strategy and for executing the expansion of Sunnybrook’s Addictions program.

Dr. Zhou recently spoke with us, sharing her thoughts and experiences as a pan-Asian student, educator and leader.

The Impact of Education on Social Equity

There is general consensus among experts that education can elevate one’s quality of life. Armed with an education, an individual can develop the ability to think critically, learn professional skills and gain knowledge to build a career and a life. But more than that, an education can drive social equity through both the hard and soft skills developed through the process of formal learning.

When asked about how education can influence social equity, Dr. Zhou recalls an initiative conducted by Raj Chetty of the Harvard Department of Economics, called Opportunity Insights. “The overall purpose of the initiative is to identify what allows people to achieve economic mobility and success in their career, assuming they came from a lower income background or immigrant background” she explains.

According to the 2022 iteration of the study, it was found that out of all the different settings where one can build up social capital – such as a network and personal relationships – attending college (in the U.S.) and university (in Canada) was the biggest factor that led people from low-income backgrounds or immigrant families rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes. At higher education institutions, she explains, one experiences a “mix of different and diverse perspectives and backgrounds. And it’s where people who may come from a low socio-economic background could, for the first time, encounter others who may come from a high socio-economic background – people who are well-resourced in terms of social capital. [The study found that] going to college or university was really important to helping people who may not necessarily have social equity to attain a level in their career develop the social capital for success.”

The Barriers That Can Limit Access and Opportunity

Of course, gaining access to college and university-level education is easier said than done, particularly for new immigrant and low-income families. Dr. Zhou recalls four barriers she and her family faced upon immigrating to Canada:

  1. Economic
    “The first barrier I experienced was an economic barrier,” she says. “Simply applying to university costs quite a lot. Sometimes, if there’s an interview involved, there’s a requirement to either attend in person or to dress in a certain way. And once you get into post-secondary education, there’s the cost of books, a computer, tuition and all the costs of living involved in being a university student.” Dr. Zhou was resourceful in earning extra income in order to address this barrier while at university and notes it may take some creativity to combat this barrier.

  2. Language
    Dr. Zhou adds that another barrier that she – like many other immigrants face – was language. Not being able to speak the dominant language of Canada presented her with challenges when it came to asking a teacher for help, working on assignments and writing applications. The library became an excellent, free resource for Dr. Zhou – every week she went to read or find books on university applications and sample essays. For others facing this barrier, she encourages finding libraries that offer English classes for newcomers, or editing services that can help develop strong applications.

  3. Neighbourhood
    “Assuming you’re not able to afford to live in a high-income, well-resourced neighbourhood with community centres, secure housing and well-funded schools, immigrants can lose out on opportunities – either summer jobs or scholarship opportunities when they are applying for post-secondary education,” Dr. Zhou says. When her parents noticed she was in a special education class for learning disorders, they knew something wasn’t right (she had a language barrier, not a learning disorder). This prompted them to move to a different neighbourhood and a school where class sizes weren’t so large and she could access improved resources and programs.

  4. Lack of Representation in Leadership Positions
    Many students entering university apply for a program because their parent, sibling or other family member were exposed to a particular field. “But if you have no mentor, nobody like yourself that you can see in that program, then it can be hard to visualize yourself applying for that program as well,” she says. One of Dr. Zhou’s priorities today is to boost representation in academia through her social media presence. She encourages others to do the same.

Building Resilience Through Adversity

While in university, Dr. Zhou’s path remained strewn with obstacles. She worked three jobs in order to fund her cost of living. While this was a barrier, it was also a form of self-development that she feels made her a better, more entrepreneurial person. She would sell the notes she made in class, or take the books or furniture that people would dispose of in the recycling room and sell them online. “I had to get creative to make money and fund my way through university,” she shares.

Dr. Zhou also faced discrimination and bullying while in school by people who took exception to the high marks she was getting. But again, she used the experience to her advantage. “I think in the end, this harassment taught me how to identify people’s motivations. I worked around it by helping people understand the concepts that were being taught – they actually stopped bothering me because they knew if they could have a good relationship with me, I could help them finish their assignment or a pass a test. It taught me to be more creative and helped me understand that people have different motivations. And when you’re entering a workplace, there might be people who don’t like you for who knows what reason, so you have to identify what people’s motivations are and lean into that to help them become allies.”

Leveraging Knowledge to Advance Social Inclusion

Driven by her upbringing and challenging early experiences, Dr. Zhou is a firm advocate for social change. She is passionate about addressing socio-economic inequities in accessing education, improving student financial education and mentoring equity-deserving groups. “Seeing the importance of environmental and socio-economic factors such as income, neighbourhood and access to community resources, ensuring opportunities for other students is something I am very passionate about. A lot of the teaching I do addresses open access education, which allows anybody to have access to different forms of knowledge.”

She also has a YouTube channel – Breaking Bad Debt where she publishes her lectures, so that anyone – not just University of Toronto students – can watch them. Beyond being a valuable learning resource for students, this action is a message. “This way people can see there is a female first-generation Asian who is in a teaching position and think, ‘I can see myself doing that.’”

And Dr. Zhou believes anybody can contribute to social equity and inclusion. “There are so many opportunities to create change. If you are in a position where you are hiring someone, it is important to not just select someone who is the exact same as you, but to hire someone who might have different experiences and a different way of thinking from you.”

Today, she is pleased with the increase in needs-based scholarships from education institutions, more mentorship and outreach programs for equity-deserving groups, and a wealth of research that has been published on improving educational outcomes. There is more that can be done, and she suggests more funding, more social media outreach to showcase diverse representation and more awareness of education opportunities. “All of that can help level the playing field for new people who want to access education,” she says.

Inclusive education is both a goal and a means of attaining equity. It represents a pathway to empowerment and societal change – and once you have it, you’ll never lose it. “You could lose your home at any time, you could lose your business. And you could even lose a lot of your income. However, you can’t lose your education,” says Dr. Zhou. “When you have an education, you can apply your skills and knowledge to build up your life again.” And more than that, Dr. Zhou believes that you can use your education to enact positive social change, creating a recurring cycle that enables more people to access opportunities and in turn advance equity and inclusion.

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YouTube channel – Breaking Bad Debt