Elementary school in a care home. High school in a pandemic. These grads had quite an education

Grade 12 students Ava Schick and Asya Dinh used one of their last high school afternoons in June to return to the Saskatoon advanced care home where they went to school six years ago.

They sat down to interview each other, at CBC’s request, about how going to elementary school in a care home and high school in a pandemic has shaped them.

“It made me more resilient and resourceful,” said Dinh.

CBC News first met Dinh and Schick in June 2017 as they finished Grade 6 in a unique intergenerational program — known as iGen — that embeds a Saskatoon Public elementary class inside Sherbrooke Community Center for an entire year.

A girl pushes a woman in a wheelchair while another girl holds a cat.
In June 2017, CBC News spent the day with iGen students at Sherbrooke Community Center in Saskatoon. Ava Schick, seen here in the blue and white shirt, was in Grade 6 at the time. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

iGen students don’t have a traditional classroom with desks. They do most of their learning or projects at various locations in the care home, often working side-by-side with seniors and people with acquired brain injuries.

Dinh, now 18, said the program taught him the value of being vulnerable.

“It’s very difficult for people [with varying disabilities] to open up unless you are open to being vulnerable with them as well,” she said, adding that she learned vulnerability is “crucial for effective communication.”

WATCH | 2 Saskatoon grads reflect on their unusual educational experiences:

2 Saskatoon grads reflect on their unusual educational experiences

Asya Dinh and Ava Schick spent Grade 6 inside a care home and their high school years in a pandemic. Both experiences shaped their future plans.

Schick, 18, believes she’s more open-minded and receptive to others because iGen taught her that everyone has knowledge and skills to share. She was inspired by Jodi Grant, a former professor who was paralyzed in an accident. Grant, who has since passed away, read to the Grade 6 class every day in 2017.

“It really sparked my love for reading,” Schick said. “I thought just being with her and seeing how much she loved academics and reading, and how much she valued teaching people, really meant a lot to me.”

Jodi Grant sits in a wheelchair surrounded by happy Grade 6 students.
“I look at them in wonder,” Jodi Grant, 69, told CBC News in June 2017 about witnessing a transformation in the Grade 6 students who went to school in her care home. Grants passed away in 2021. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Pandemic learnings

Dinh, a self-described overachiever, said she struggled to stay motivated while being forced to do her high school classes in isolation during the pandemic.

“Being isolated at home… made me susceptible to constantly overthinking and developing insecurities that I’ve never thought of before,” she said.

Dinh learned that it was OK to ask for help to deal with mental health issues.

“There are many battles that you may not be capable of fighting on your own,” she said, adding that she often thought about care home residents who had persevered through difficult times in their lives.

She also discovered she didn’t need to rely entirely on her family and friends for happiness.

“The pandemic allowed me to grow a sense of independence and find serenity in being alone. Although it was a tough lesson to learn, it is a valuable lesson that will be crucial for me when I leave university.”

Two young women pose in their high school graduation gowns.
Ava Schick, left, is graduating from Aden Bowman Collegiate and hopes to become a lawyer. Asya Dinh, right, is graduating from Holy Cross High School and plans to become a doctor. (Submitted by Ava Schick and Asya Dinh)

Schick said her experience in the care home helped her view the pandemic differently than some of her high school classmates.

“I think it really opened my eyes. Like, you heard and saw a lot of people being like, ‘This doesn’t really matter. It’s not that big of a deal.’ But I think spending a year just hands-on with people who have vulnerable immune systems… it made me so much more aware of how I held myself and how I, you know, showed myself to the world.”

Bright futures

Both high school grads have ambitious career goals and a desire to help others.

Dinh wants to be a doctor. She’s been accepted at University College Dublin in Ireland for direct entry medical school, starting in September.

“I feel like just being around so many vulnerable individuals with many varying disabilities allowed me to find an interest in medicine,” she said, adding that she’d like to research the cause and cure of diseases.

Schick plans to become a human rights lawyer. She said iGen helped her learn about inequalities in society.

“Seeing and hearing the experiences of people of how they’ve been treated throughout their life, yeah, it really opened my eyes.… like, how I’ve been raised and how I’ve been treated, it’s so different from how other people have been treated and I just, I really want to help people,” Schick said.

A Grade 6 students play piano for a senior who is singing.
A talented pianist, Asya Dinh spent her Grade 6 year inside Sherbrooke Community Centre. In this image from June 2017, she plays piano for a senior who loves to sing. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

‘Life is short’

Both Dinh and Schick appreciate the lessons they learned about life and death in the care home and in the pandemic.

“Ultimately, [it] taught me how valuable life is and how quickly it moves. And so it’s so important to show your love and care for everyone in your life as much as you can,” Dinh said.

“Life is short and you don’t know what can happen.”