Learning, sharing & supporting

The Ban Righ Centre fills the needs of mature women students in more ways than one

Various awards were handed out at the 2005 Ban Righ Centre Spring Award Ceremony. Han Han, middle, recipient of the 2005 Barbara Hall Memorial Award, sits with her son and Gamila Abdalla, student advisor, during a pause in the pre-show reception.
Various awards were handed out at the 2005 Ban Righ Centre Spring Award Ceremony. Han Han, middle, recipient of the 2005 Barbara Hall Memorial Award, sits with her son and Gamila Abdalla, student advisor, during a pause in the pre-show reception.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of The Ban Righ Centre / Danielle Gugler

On a cold Tuesday night in early May, the Ban Righ Centre was one of the only buildings on campus that was warm and full of people. It was a night for celebration: mature women students were coming together to honour each other for their achievements over a year’s worth of hard work, struggle and success.

Women, children, partners and friends overcame the ubiquitous Kingston mayflies and packed the small house on Bader Lane to celebrate the community they built. The Ban Righ Centre was designed to help female students—and mature women in particular—to cope with the demands of student life.

The gathering present at the Annual Spring Awards Ceremony in Grant Hall following the pre-show reception in the Centre on May 3 showed just how much the Centre has succeeded in this endeavour.

“For one day, take this glory into yourself and admit you have done something very, very fine,” said Diana Beresford-Kroeger, the evening’s keynote speaker and a noted author and scientist.

“To hell with the word mature! We are learning all our lives. We are all scholars every single day, and not one of us is superior, because we are all part of a society,” Beresford-Kroeger said.

Her words, like those of all the speakers, made it clear this was no ordinary award ceremony. The marks of caring were everywhere.

“This is my home away from home,” said a tearful but smiling Catherine Middaugh.

Currently in the middle of her first year of nursing at the University, Middaugh was one of the two recipients of the Diane McKenzie Awards, which were established to commemorate Jean Hill, the first dean of the School of Nursing. Middaugh is also raising her eight-month-old daughter with support from her husband.

“[The Centre] is the only place on campus where you can pump breast milk!”she joked.

The life of a mature female student is often arduous. Many women have to juggle school and family obligations; others have overcome significant obstacles just to get here and have further yet to go; still others feel isolated in a university community geared towards young people whose perspectives and experiences are light years away.

“You feel different when you come back here as a mature woman student. You don’t really fit in with the young kids,” said Mona Smith, this year’s recipient of the Elizabeth Wallace Bursary. Named after the founding president of the Queen’s Women’s Association, the award is distributed annually on the basis of financial need to a student in her first year of study at Queen’s.

After overcoming undiagnosed chronic illnesses and raising two children—who graduated from the University with two degrees each—Smith said she decided to return to school to satisfy her long-standing love of learning.

This year she completed the first year of her development studies degree, where she is focusing on aboriginal studies. This is the kind of person the Centre supports: the motivated learner who needs a little help along the way.

“University as a whole often makes mature women students feel a little lost,” said Lisa Webb, student advisor and program planner for the Centre. “We try to make [the Centre] a one-stop shopping place, to meet the needs as best as possible.” The Ban Righ Centre was founded in 1974, when the University wanted to amalgamate its male and female residences. At the time, the Ban Righ Foundation ran the female residences and was making a profit. The Foundation’s directors agreed to the amalgamation on the condition that the surplus funds from the female residences would still go to the Foundation’s project of supporting continuing education for women.

And so the Ban Righ Centre came to be, housed in the brick building that sits quietly between Ban Righ and Stirling halls. The original endowment from the Ban Righ Foundation covers the Centre’s operating costs; donors and the University supplement the remaining funds, which go towards bursaries and scholarships given to students in need.

The Centre also conducts some fundraising activities. Last year they published the “Daring to Dream” calendar featuring women from the Queen’s and Kingston communities in tastefully risqué poses that garnered a lot of attention.

“Mature women students face a number of steep costs. Childcare costs are tough, homes and cars often need unexpected repairs, and transportation fees are high. Some students are on welfare, and they just need money for food and living costs,” Webb said. “Our bursaries won’t cover all of that, but they help.”

The Centre itself houses a comfortable lounge, a quiet study room, a computer lab and a nap room. Coffee, tea and soup are available for small donations. The walls are decorated with artwork by a rotating cast of female students or Kingston artists. Webb said she estimates 160 to 180 women pass through the Centre’s doors per year.

Webb, Gamila Abdalla and Karen Knight are the Centre’s three student advisors. They provide informal counselling and support for anyone who needs it, and they encourage students to lean on each other.

“[Going to school as a mature student] is a really intimidating process—you have to apply to Queen’s, and then cope with the technology and the academic expectations,” Webb said. “One of the best things we offer here is what the students give each other. There’s a real family atmosphere.”

“We learn a lot from the students too,” Abdalla added.

The Centre’s staff members offer compassion and experience, since they were or are students too. Barb Schlafer, the director of the Centre, came to Kingston married but eventually separated from her husband. With her young son, she approached a Kingston women’s centre.

According to Schlafer, a representative of the Kingston centre told her their organization was too radical for her, and she was better off trying to get involved with the Ban Righ Centre.

And so she arrived at the Centre’s brick house for the first time.

“Helen Mathers, the first director, made me tea and then we talked for two hours,” Schlafer said.

With that introduction, Schalfer said she started volunteering and coming to programs. She was later employed part-time at the Centre while studying at the University, and worked more and more until she became the director in 1999.

“I did my Masters of Education between the ages of 45 and 50 while raising a teenager and working, like many of the women here,” Schlafer said.

Smith said Schlafer’s life experience is good for the Centre.

“Barb’s background helps, as a single mom with two kids,” Smith said. “She’s great.”

Webb said the Centre has been collecting comments and testimonials from professors, who say mature women students contribute a lot to class discussions, including the life experience like Schlafer’s that many younger students don’t have.

“[Mature women students] contribute to diversity on campus,” Webb said. “They are incredibly dedicated, and they really make use of resources.”

Queen’s Legal Counsel Diane Kelly reiterated that sentiment in her speech on behalf of the University at the awards ceremony.

“The Ban Righ Centre occupies a very important place in the fabric of the Queen’s community,” she said. “You should be proud of your achievements—we certainly are.”

Rodica Ghenea, a chemistry graduate student and member of the Centre’s Board, came to Queen’s from Romania two years ago. She said she felt isolated upon her arrival and couldn’t find solace in visiting the International Students Centre. One day, however, she stopped by the Ban Righ Centre.

“I found my second family here,” Ghenea said. “It’s very hard all alone. It’s hard to find people with the same problems and experiences. But I found wonderful people here, and everything I needed.”

Ghenea’s experience isn’t unique. At the reception before the May 3 awards ceremony, many commented on how most of the women who find their way to the Centre come to feel like part of a family.

Sue Ellen Holst came from Ottawa for the evening to present an award. She and her family established the Janet Bilton-Holst Citation in honour of her mother, who was a mature student at the University. According to Holst, her mother “had nothing but great experiences at the Centre.”

“It was so important to her to have an outlet,” Holst said. “She loved it here. For her it was a great place to share her thoughts and feelings.” Janet Bilton-Holst died of breast cancer in 1994, but the laughter and humour she brought to the Centre lives on. The award named after her goes annually to someone who demonstrates these qualities.

This year’s recipient of the reward, Jennifer Stacey, is graduating this year with a degree in history and sociology. At the reception, she greeted Holst with a big hug, and introduced her to her family. Holst said she makes a point of coming to the ceremony whenever she can.

“Most of the past recipients have contacted me. They write the most amazing notes,” she said.

The words spoken at the ceremony showed how the Ban Righ Centre has affected so many lives in a positive way. Radiant smiles abounded during the speeches by donors and award winners alike, but so did tears of pride and farewell.

These women had accomplished a great deal, helping each other along the way, and May 3 was their night to celebrate.

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