Giving Back to the Community: Interview with Dr. Kanwal Neel

July 19, 2023

Launched in 2006, the Friends of Simon Program (FOS) draws upon the expertise of SFU’s Faculty of Education. FOS recruits, trains, and assigns university students as afterschool tutor-mentors at school and community sites throughout the Lower Mainland. The goal is to serve newcomer, refugee and other at-risk students from kindergarten to Grade 12. After 12 years with this award-winning program, Dr. Kanwal Neel is stepping down as one of its coordinators. The Faculty of Education sat down with him to reflect on his experiences.

Q: What brought you to Friends of Simon?

A: I was finishing my term as the Associate Director of Professional Development Program in the Faculty of Education at SFU when I got the invitation to join the FOS team. The program focus had been on afterschool homework, primarily literacy, and they wanted to expand it to also include numeracy. As my background is in mathematics education, this was a great fit for me, and this has been one of the best experiences in my professional career. It was a way for me to give back in a way that does not involve going halfway around the world to make a difference.

Q: What have been the greatest "aha" moments? 

A: “Anything is possible.” [I remember] visiting a site in Surrey when I just started as a coordinator, and a little Punjabi boy came up to me and asked in Punjabi, “Can Punjabi kids also go to university?” And I said YES! there's nothing stopping you from doing that in Canada, everyone has opportunities to go there. Fast forward a few years later, I met the same child in our high school program, now fluently speaking English. And he said, “I got a scholarship to go to university.” We have had a couple of our former students become FOS tutors. They had joined the program when they were in grade five or six, stayed with our program, came to SFU and then they became tutors. The circle is complete, and now they are also giving back to the community.

Q: What factors contributed to the Friends of Simon success? 

A: This program provides opportunities and hope, but it’s also the relationships that our tutors build with these children. It is done in a very professional and meaningful way. I remember former SFU President Dr. Andrew Petter calling Friends of Simon a win-win-win. The first “win” is for the students, as they become proficient in literacy and numeracy. The second “win” is for the tutors who are SFU students. Our tutors are paid, and they are learning from the students they tutor. And the third “win” is for our school communities and our home communities. Kids definitely improve their academic abilities, but it's all the other pieces like mental, emotional health and feeling a sense of belonging that have been key success for the program. Friends of Simon has been wonderful in multiplying our influence and our impact on others.

Q: What is special about the way you work with tutors? 

A: FOS hires undergraduate university students and helps them find out whether working with children is a passion that they would like to pursue as a career. We train the tutors throughout the year with ten training sessions, giving them strategies on dealing with mental health, child protection, and anything else that is relevant.

Our tutors are also a really good reflection of the community, and they are very good at problem solving and adapting to the changing needs. We have tutors that speak multiple languages. They can communicate with the children and their families in their native languages and enable them. For example, when COVID hit and we all went online, one of our tutors who was quite tech savvy said, “You know, we can develop manuals and teaching tools in multiple language for families to use ZOOM.” Hence our tutors translated our ZOOM manual into 13 different languages, and families that had had no idea about technology were able to use ZOOM to communicate.

Q: How has the program changed on your watch?  

A: The biggest change comes with the funding. At our peak, I think we've had 23 different sites; we are at 16 sites right now and we have been as low as 10 sites. We have also found that the demographics of different sites changes over the years. For example: we were at a thriving site in Coquitlam and then “lo and behold,” Skytrain came and low-income houses were replaced by condos. New immigrant families could no longer afford those particular places and had to move. The demographic of the school shifted, so we moved to a different site. We move the sites to where there is a need in the community. Another thing that has changed is partnering with Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS), especially in the Burnaby School District. Since SWIS work with students both at school and with their families at home, they are able to identify the children who would benefit most from FOS’ tutoring-mentorship services and make referrals to the program.

Q: You are definitely a great ambassador for Friends of Simon. What are your dreams for the program going forward? 

A: I don't want this program to be a victim of its own success because I have seen that happen to many programs that grow too fast too quickly. But if the funding is there, I think this program can really benefit a lot more children in many different ways. New immigrants really have a hard time fitting in, and this program really is a nice bridge -- helping them navigate the language barriers and also the cultural nuances.

Q: What are you looking forward to most as you embark on this new life chapter?

A: As to the next chapter, I am looking forward to continuing to travel the world, spend more time with my family, especially my grandson, and keep on giving back to the community in whatever way I can.

Q: Any concluding thoughts? 

A: We are so fortunate to have the support of SFU Faculty of Education, SFU counseling, and other SFU departments as needed. Though the university does not fund this program directly, it is gratefully funded by private donors and other organizations.

I feel so privileged to have been part of Friends of Simon for the past twelve years. A colleague has said “once a member of the Friends of Simon, you always stay connected with the Friends of Simon family.” And I hope more people join in.