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Life-changing scholarships

Most privately funded scholarships are awarded to students attending a particular university or to children of a company’s employees. But a few pan-Canadian programs have a bigger objective in mind.


A visit to her birthplace in Calcutta, India made a searing impression on 12-year-old Saswati Deb. “Calcutta is one of those places where on the one side of the street you can have a very lavish, extravagant wedding and on the other side you can have very dire poverty,” recalls Ms. Deb, now 24. “And that’s exactly what I saw.”

There to attend the wedding celebration of a family member, she happened to glance at a child wearing little clothing and eating food that came from a garbage bin. The image has remained with her ever since. After her return to Canada, she started a volunteer group to raise awareness among Bengali youth in Toronto about the conditions in their homeland. The group went on to partner with the Toronto-Calcutta Foundation, a non-profit organization, and over the years it has helped to fund a health clinic, a school and an HIV prevention program in Calcutta.

The experience helped spark Ms. Deb’s passion for volunteerism and community activism. These activities have included stints as a motivational speaker, a volunteer tutor and a work term with the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Her work was recognized in 2004 when she was selected to receive the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership. The award covered the full cost of her undergraduate tuition at the University of Toronto, freeing up her time for numerous extracurricular and volunteer activities. Without it, she says, paying for her education would have meant a financial struggle and would have limited her volunteer activities.

Ms. Deb graduated from U of T in 2010 with a master’s degree in public policy and now works for the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services. She plans to apply to law school in a couple of years and eventually to run for public office, maybe even become Prime Minister one day. Whatever the future holds, she says, she has her family and TD Bank Financial Group to thank: “This is the most amazing scholarship in the world. It has allowed me to believe in making change.”

Scholarship programs like this one can make a lasting impact on the lives of young people. Recognizing this, large and small benefactors establish numerous scholarships and bursaries with specific universities. Many corporations offer postsecondary scholarships to the children of their employees. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada administers more than 150 of these programs for various companies.

But, there is another category of scholarships, like TD’s. These are funded by private companies and foundations but aren’t tied to specific institutions (AUCC administers several of these programs as well). Few in number, these scholarships are not well known, says Jon Dellandrea, chancellor of Nipissing University and former chief advancement officer at the University of Toronto. Dr. Dellandrea says the kinds of scholarships set up by foundations and companies at specific universities may have more impact because the university can match the funds, help promote the scholarship and work with donors to help them achieve their goals. But these rare programs that aren’t tied to a specific university tend to have a broader objective and an element of “corporate and social responsibility,” he says. For some institutions it makes sense to opt for a system-wide scholarship program; an example would be a resource company operating in Canada’s north that wants to promote educational opportunities for the region’s residents. “There’s a certain logic to doing a pan-institutional program. Its specificity becomes the region, rather than the institution.”

Here are four such programs that aim to forever change young people’s lives.

Who: Fondation Baxter & Alma Ricard is an Ottawa-based foundation that awards scholarships to French Canadian students living outside Quebec to pursue graduate and postgraduate studies in any field, language and country of their choice.

What it does: The foundation awards $1.25 million a year, making it one of the most generous scholarship programs funded by an individual donor, says Alain Landry, its executive director. The amount varies according to each recipient’s needs and can be as much as $50,000 a year for those studying abroad. The scholarship covers the cost of tuition, accommodation, books and other fees. In the last academic year (2010-11), 24 students from across Canada qualified for these scholarships.

Why it does it: The foundation was created in 1998 with a $23-million endowment by Alma Ricard. She and her husband, Baxter, built their fortune on a string of radio, television and cable stations in northern Ontario. Both were long-time residents of Sudbury, Ontario. Mr. Ricard died in 1993 and Mrs. Ricard 10 years later, and they had no children. Mrs. Ricard wanted the foundation to reflect the vision she had shared with her husband: to promote higher education for francophone students living outside Quebec, whom she saw as financially disadvantaged compared to English-speaking students and who had for years been denied the opportunity of going to school in their mother tongue. The foundation’s goal is to give francophone Canadians who are 21 years or older and living outside Quebec the opportunity to pursue graduate studies “in the best schools in the world without having to go into debt.” Candidates are judged on a mix of academic achievement and community service. Mrs. Ricard was a fierce promoter of linguistic minority rights and, says Mr. Landry, she wanted French-speaking Canadians “to identify themselves to Canadians at large and to be part of that wonderful Canadian mosaic.” He adds, she was also a proud “French Canadian” and was perhaps sending “a little bit of a political message” by excluding francophone Quebec students from eligibility.

Who: Cameco, based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and one of the world’s largest uranium producers, funds a scholarship program with a special emphasis on northern development and aboriginal education.

What it does: The mining company awards almost $400,000 a year in scholarships and bursaries. More than a quarter of that goes to support Northern development and aboriginal education. Its Northern Scholarship Program gives students from northern Saskatchewan up to $7,500 a year to pursue an undergraduate degree or diploma at an institution of their choice. A second bursary, also worth $7,500 a year, is awarded to qualifying aboriginal students who pursue a business degree. A third award, valued at $50,000, provides up to $5,000 a year for four years to an aboriginal Saskatchewan student to study a mining-related discipline at the University of Saskatchewan and includes three summer work terms with the company.

Why it does it: Cameco’s Northern and aboriginal scholarships are all about being a good corporate citizen and creating opportunities in the northern part of the province, says Sean Junor, manager of workforce planning for Cameco. “It’s the right thing to do, but it is also about growing capacity in the north” where Cameco has many of its core properties. Northern Saskatchewan accounts for just 15 percent of the province’s population, and the vast majority of the people are aboriginal Canadians. “It all leads to a much stronger region of the province and ultimately makes it a more appealing place for people to live and work,” says Mr. Junor.

Cameco funds other scholarships for students to pursue degrees in geological science, engineering and other mining related disciplines in Canada and the United States, to help the company recruit skilled workers.  As part of its employee benefits package, Cameco makes available up to $2,500 a year for four years to children of employees who maintain good academic standing. Corporate-funded scholarships provide an important benefit to recipients and employees alike. But, in tough economic times these scholarships can become “a pretty easy target” for corporate cost-cutting, says Mr. Junor. Cameco, like other corporations, had cut back its program in recent years but has since restored funding and now plans to expand.

Who: TD Bank Financial Group awards TD Scholarships for Community Leadership for young Canadians with a strong record of community service.

What it does: The bank gives $1.4 million a year to 20 high school students from across Canada. Recipients receive up to $70,000 over four years to cover the cost of tuition and living expenses while completing an undergraduate degree. The program also includes an offer of paid summer employment at TD. Since its inception in 1995, the program has awarded $15 million to 300 students.

Why it does it: TD recognizes the achievements of notable young people like Craig Kielburger (who as a child began raising money to combat child labour which grew into the foundation Free the Children), and aims not only to honour their work but also to inspire others to follow in their path, says Jane Thompson, executive director of the program. TD also wants to ensure that the next generation of Canadian leaders gets the educational support it needs, she adds. The bank receives several thousand applications a year and interviews about 70 applicants for 20 scholarships.

Not all have the national presence of Mr. Kielburger, but their contributions are equally worthy; one recipient was honoured for her work in organizing young people to deliver hot meals to seniors in her Saskatchewan town. Students in financial need, those who have physical disabilities and those who have suffered personal setbacks get special consideration. Dr. Thompson says most recipients have some financial need, although several scholarships go to “comfortable, middle-class kids” who undoubtedly have more time to devote to volunteer work than those from low-income families. In her opinion, that isn’t such a bad thing because the program lets young people from different income levels get to know one another and establish social connections that may serve them well down the road. Some TD scholars who’ve gone on to establish non-profit organizations have recruited fellow TD alumni to sit on their boards of directors, she notes. TD allots more than $3.5 million a year through other scholarships with specific universities and colleges for students in financial need.

Who: CIBC Youthvision Scholarship is a program run by CIBC in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada and the YMCA to support high school students facing financial and other challenges.

What it does: The bank awards more than $1 million a year to 30 Grade 10 students across Canada. The recipients – who are selected by a committee that includes representatives of Big Brothers Big Sisters and the YMCA – eventually receive as much as $36,000 to cover tuition for up to four years at the university or college of their choice, as well as paid summer internships through the Y. Since the program started 10 years ago, CIBC has given $10 million to more than 350 students.

Why it does it: The bank’s goal was to support young students who were at risk of dropping out of high school and to encourage them to pursue postsecondary studies. “What we wanted to do was create a scholarship that was something other than simply yet another program for bright, capable kids,” says David McGown, CIBC vice-president of government and community relations. CIBC and its partners designed the program to address the main risk factors that prevent students from completing high school, he says, including a lack of financial support and appropriate role models. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada and the YMCA identify potential recipients in Grade 10.

The winners receive a promise of financial support that will let them pursue an undergraduate degree or diploma for up to four years. The program awards the scholarship early in students’ high school years to lessen their stress about school finances and so they can plan ahead for their education. Each recipient is paired with a mentor during the program and each is offered paid summer work, starting in Grade 10 until they finish their undergraduate studies. The internships give them work-related experience and expose them to role models, Mr. McGown says. CIBC also provides an additional $100,000 a year to support the postsecondary education of children of fallen soldiers and $100,000 to the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation to assist aboriginal students. It provides other bursaries and scholarships through select universities and colleges.

Other notable scholarship programs

Fondation Desjardins awards about $700,000 a year in bursaries, scholarships and research grants to young people in Quebec and to members of Caisses populaires in Ontario who are pursuing postsecondary studies. Since its inception in 1970, the foundation has given more than $10 million to almost 9,000 students.

Imperial Oil Higher Education Awards cover undergraduate tuition and fees for children of Imperial Oil Ltd. employees who maintain an average of at least 70 percent. The oil company also funds several scholarships for aboriginal students.

L’Oréal Canada for Women in Science awards several doctoral and postdoctoral fellowships for women researchers in the life sciences, engineering and applied sciences; some fellowships are awarded in partnership with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO.

Export Development Canada gives up to 30 International Business Scholarships a year valued at $3,000 each to undergraduate students pursuing degrees in international business, finance and economics to promote the importance of international trade.

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada administers several scholarships through its Foreign Government Awards program. Funded by foreign governments, the scholarships support Canadians to study at the undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral level in various countries including France, Russia and South Korea. The awards cover tuition fees, airfare and a monthly stipend.

Rosanna Tamburri
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  1. Jennifer Swennumson / April 5, 2011 at 14:52

    Thank you for your posted information on scholarships and rewards. I am in my last two months of my graduate program. Are there any funds available for post graduation students leaving the educational setting, possibly awards for scholastic achievement and/or assistance during the interum while seeking out employment?

  2. RyanJoseph / April 20, 2011 at 04:34

    Rosanna, really you have done excellent job! I appreciate the initiative you have taken for those poor and needy people from Kolkata (India). It brings good fortune for those who might have not think of even going to school. Thanks to other non profit organizations which are engaged in supporting poor young man to get graduated. Cameco is really doing good job to make available up to $2,500 a year for education for four years to children of employees having good academic standing. The article has really inspired me to do something for families belonging to below poverty line.