Though he refuses to walk across the stage at the convocation ceremony, Ryan McEathron will be graduating from MacEwan university this spring with a bachelor of music in jazz and contemporary popular music, which he earned over the past seven years.
“I fully regret it,” he says.
McEathron has been playing the drums since he was seven years old, taught lessons for six years, and briefly attended Mount Royal university’s music program years ago. Mostly, he had been relying on his day job as a bartender for his income until 2013, when he decided to go back to school and finish his degree. He moved to Edmonton from Calgary, away from his mother and two brothers, specifically to attend MacEwan. The extra expense of moving seemed worth it at the time because MacEwan has one of the only music programs in the country that “isn’t jazz- or classical-focused,” he says.
“Humber (College) is the next closest, all the way in Ontario, and even it’s still pretty jazz-heavy.”
McEathron says he has “had problems with the school from the very beginning.” Over the first four years (he decided to do his degree in five), these problems were by no means insignificant, but also not too out of the ordinary for a university. His transferable credits from Mount Royal were not properly accounted for, causing him to take over a semester’s worth of redundant classes. He didn’t receive some of the credit for a semester he did abroad in Finland until he fought for it. Once, his appeal of an unfair grade went all the way to the provost of the university before he won.
“I’m the first person (in the music program) whoever appealed to that level,” he says. “I think they just expected me to give up like everybody else, but I followed it through.”
The real problems started in the summer of 2017, just before McEathron would have entered his final year.
In July, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away a month later. McEathron was forced to withdraw from the upcoming semester — not just to take time to grieve, but because he was the executor of his mother’s estate.
He had to relocate his life back to Calgary for two years in order to organize (and pay for) the funeral, take care of all the legal matters involved in the death of a family member, sell his mother’s house, and distribute everything between himself and his brothers. This, of course, meant finding a new day job and place to live, and his share from the sale of the house did not come close to covering the costs he incurred.
“By the time I came back to MacEwan, I was more in debt and less prepared for school than I was before,” he says.
Also, because of his two-year absence, he found that when he returned in the fall of 2019, he had been designated a first-year student in MacEwan’s system, though he was really entering his fifth. He went to the administration to try and get it fixed but was told it couldn’t get done right away.
“The Office of the Registrar does not have the ability to change an individual’s year of study,” says Registrar David McLaughlin in an emailed statement. “However, when concerns are brought forward, the Office and program areas work together to review the calculation and implement solutions as necessary.”
Staff told McEathron the best they could do was bump him up to a second-year for the time being, and that the problem would be resolved in the following semester.
“I was told not to worry because this wouldn’t affect my eligibility for scholarships in any way,” McEathron says. “They made it clear that being a second-year was no different from being a fourth-year.”
McEathron, who put himself through school, while working and with no outside financial assistance besides the approximately $50,000 worth of student loans he accrued, says he is “like a poster child for financial aid,” and had always depended on scholarships, bursaries, and awards to help him out. After being told not to worry about his eligibility, he was helping a friend apply for scholarships for the winter semester and discovered one offered by Long & McQuade Musical Instruments worth $2,500, for which he met all the requirements — financial need, the program of study, minimum GPA — except it was only offered to third- and fourth-year students.
“I realized I don’t know how many scholarships I missed out on in the fall,” McEathron says. You can only see the scholarships you are eligible for, so there could have been others,” that didn’t show up for him, because of his technical second-year status.
The following months were a mess for McEathron as he ran between different departments of the administration trying to get the issue resolved in time for the winter semester’s scholarship and bursary application deadline on Jan. 31 — with no luck. His status as a second-year was not fixed by the time he was originally told it was supposed to be. He went in person to see what the problem was, and the confrontation ended with staff calling security to have McEathron removed because “the conversation got heated,” one staff member says.
“I said ‘I shouldn’t have to deal with this shit’ and because I said ‘shit,’ basically, they called security,” McEathron says. The only advice offered to him by the ombudsperson was to write a strongly worded letter, which he was reluctant to do: “I’ve already written enough letters.” On top of everything, he says he had been overcharged $100 for a class he enrolled in late in the fall to get the full-time status needed to qualify for most scholarships in the first place. Trying to get that fixed, he says he was given false information from staff at the Fees and Financial Information desk about the cost per credit for his program: “When I asked the finance person about it, she basically suggested that I was making it up and it was all in my head.”
Eventually, McEathron documented proof he had been missed out on the Long & McQuade scholarship and showed it to the Registrar’s Office, at which point his status was changed to fourth-year right away — but the problems didn’t even stop there.
In spite of all the trouble, McEathron found out that his second-year status didn’t matter after all. He still found himself ineligible — for both the Long & McQuade scholarship and the Louise McKinney Post-Secondary Scholarship for $2,500 offered by the Government of Alberta — because his two-year absence meant he also did not fulfil MacEwan’s or the government’s requirement of being enrolled in classes full-time in the previous calendar year. He asked if exceptional circumstances, like the death of a family member, call for exceptions in the policy, but was told no.
McLaughlin confirmed that “although the university is able to consider extenuating circumstance for some policies and deadlines, awards criteria is not one of them,” because donors are typically the ones to set those criteria.
McLaughlin declined to comment on the specifics of McEathron’s case, including the allegations that he had been overcharged for tuition and given false information from staff, citing privacy concerns. He did say that “staff understand that applications, funding, and navigating the academic system can be difficult and stressful at times,” and that “our office does work to ensure our staff are trained and have resources available to help students.”
McEathron also tried to contact Alberta Student Aid regarding the Louise McKinney scholarship multiple times.
“I was told they would call me back and nobody ever did,” he says.
Alberta Student Aid was able to confirm that they too do not offer exceptions to the enrolment requirements for scholarships, but neither Alberta Student Aid nor the Ministry of Advanced Education responded to requests for comment on McEathron’s specific situation.
As a last-ditch effort one week before the deadline to apply, McEathron sought help from the Students’ Association of MacEwan university (SAMU). He sent an email to Evan MacDonald, SAMU’s Advocacy Coordinator, to see if there was any way around MacEwan’s policy, but never received a response.
“I was really in need of student advocacy, and that was just like a slap in the face,” he says.
Later it was found that the message was not simply missed by MacDonald, but the lack of response was because his contact email was listed incorrectly on SAMU’s website. SAMU’s marketing department says this mistaken email was published on June 1, 2018, meaning it had gone unnoticed for just over a year and nine months. To McEathron, this revelation is not much comfort.
“If this was not just one missed email, and is something that nobody thought to check for years, that’s worse,” he says.
Regardless, Sean Waddingham, SAMU’s vice president academic, says he “does not see a way forward,” for McEathron even if he had gotten into contact with SAMU, or any other students that might find themselves in a similar position.
As the vice president academic, Waddingham is often responsible for meeting directly with students who have grievances with MacEwan and are looking for advocacy. Over the year since he was elected into that position, he says he has never heard from a student receiving false information from the Registrar’s Office, nor being overcharged. He has, however, heard about plenty of cases of students being placed in the wrong year and running into issues with scholarship requirements because they were forced to take time off from school.
“This is something ongoing for sure. This is one that MacEwan has flagged and started to look at,” says Waddingham. “It’s a significant issue because lots of students are going to have extenuating circumstances, and I think it’s clear that if someone has something that’s stopping them from going to school, MacEwan should be able to make exceptions for them.”
Waddingham says that the central problem is that MacEwan is missing a “leave of absence policy” — something that is a standard at other Canadian universities.
“They essentially freeze your status as a student, so you go and do what you need to, and when you come back, you’re right back where you were,” he says.
The university of Alberta, for example, has a policy in place called an “Approved Leave of Absence,” that can be granted for “medical, parental, professional, and compassionate,” reasons, according to the university’s website. The university of Calgary’s website goes into even more detail. There, leaves of absence can be granted for reasons “including, but not limited to: bereavement, care-giving responsibilities, maternity, medical requirements, military service, parental responsibilities, political service,” and for up to three years, depending on which reason and the program of study. The university of British Columbia (UBC) will grant a leave of up to one year to any student, for whatever reason, so long as they are “in good standing,” says UBC’s website (meaning not on academic probation).
If MacEwan issues a Required to Withdraw notice because a student’s marks drop below the threshold, that student can appeal the decision on the grounds of extenuating circumstances — Waddingham says he has met with a few students who have done so successfully. But if the student withdraws themselves, MacEwan has nothing in place to accommodate them.
“With the way the policies are currently, no matter what happens to you, if you leave MacEwan it’s as if you left of your own accord. They treat you as if you’re just gone — you absconded from the university,” Waddingham says, “and they don’t discriminate between incidents that are beyond your control.”
In a meeting on Jan. 28 — coincidentally around the time McEathron was trying to get his situation resolved — between SAMU’s executive council and Lynn Wells, MacEwan’s associate vice-president of students and teaching, a draft of such a leave of absence was put forward.
Waddingham, who was present at the meeting, says the draft indicated the policy would examine students’ circumstances on a case-by-case basis and would grant exceptions to all sorts of university policies.
“In a nursing program, you have a time limit to complete the program. This would suspend that limit. In competitive programs where your spot could be replaced by another student, it would allow you to keep that spot,” he says. And, of course, it would keep students in the proper year, and count them as having been enrolled for the purposes of applying for scholarships.
“In the case of (McEathron), who had this horrible thing happen to him, and he was put back two years because of that. That wouldn’t happen,” says Waddingham.
The policy is currently in a Policy Advisory Group, which is in charge of developing and reviewing final drafts, and ensuring the policy document adheres to the university’s goals and standards. Waddingham says he “wouldn’t be surprised if it was in place for the 2020-21 school year.”
“There is a huge policy gap here, and I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to put something like this in place,” he adds.
For McEathron, of course, the policy is too late. He’s already finished school, and never was able to apply for the scholarships, nor even find out how much he was missing out on from those he couldn’t see.
“My battle is lost,” he says. “The best I can hope for is that this doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
For the time being, the only advice he has to give students who might have to take time off because of a tragedy is: “don’t go to MacEwan.”