Universities have a reputation for being ivory towers: Places where esoteric and philosophical ideas rather than practical career skills are learned. A new initiative aimed at addressing some of the barriers that newcomers, refugees, racialized communities, Indigenous Peoples, LGTBQ+ and other disadvantaged groups face in building skills needed to thrive in a changing job market hopes to debunk that myth.

This month, McGill University’s School of Continuing Studies launched a certificate program that will arm students from disadvantaged groups with essential career-building skills including basic computer literacy, financial literacy, the ability to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries, how to work effectively in a hybrid environment, proficiency in English and French, and personalized career coaching.

The School’s Experiential Empowerment & Development (SEED) Initiative is supported by a $2-million community investment from Scotiabank as part of ScotiaRISE, the Bank’s 10-year, $500-million initiative designed to promote economic resilience among disadvantaged groups.

“Scotiabank’s commitment is a transformative gift — transformative because it changes peoples’ lives, and transformative because it allows us to take something that we have been doing all along and accelerate or amplify the intensity with which we are able to focus on communities in need that we would not normally be able to serve,” Carola Weil, Dean of Continuing Studies at McGill University, says.

“We are proud to partner with McGill to address the barriers many newcomers and individuals from historically disadvantaged communities face in achieving their career goals,” said Meigan Terry, Senior Vice President & Chief Sustainability, Social Impact and Communications Officer at Scotiabank. “The SEED program, which aims to help individuals attain work-ready skills and build greater economic resilience for themselves, their families and their communities, is strongly aligned with our purpose of delivering for every future through ScotiaRISE.”


We wanted to be able to help level the playing field a bit.

Carola Weil, Dean of Continuing Studies at McGill University

Serving these groups isn’t new for the Montreal-based university. For more than 50 years, McGill’s School of Continuing Studies has tailored courses for newcomers — immigrants and refugees — as well as individuals from Indigenous and other often marginalized or underserved populations. While they historically face financial barriers to post-secondary education, they also face challenges related to a rapidly changing workplace, with new technologies, and new ways of working.

“For individuals who are already in economically insecure situations, it may make it that much more difficult to retain income stability and to realize their own passion and dreams in a highly uncertain environment,” Weil said. “We wanted to be able to help level the playing field a bit.”

Starting next year, the initiative will provide tuition costs and a stipend to up to 40 students a year. The in-person course takes between six and 18 months to complete, depending on the time the participant has to study. With a limited number of spots available, McGill will work with community partners to pre-select individuals. Students will need a secondary school diploma (plus two years of CEGEP for Quebecers), as well as foundational language skills in English or French. Part of the ScotiaRISE investment will be used to expand the program across Quebec through online programming.

Students will be paired with mentors for job shadowing or internship opportunities at various organizations and businesses, including Scotiabank, and partners in retail businesses, consulting firms, aviation and aerospace, and the digital transformation sector.

Five years on, as the program continues to be refined, the hope is that a generational shift toward gainful, sustained employment will have begun and that the program will be targeted yet flexible enough to change with the needs of the people who use it, Weil said.

“It may be that five years from now, we need to shift our focus to different population groups; it’s not a static program.”