Photography by John Ternan
Just below the CEO title in Jennifer Wilkins’ email signature for Pathways Educational Services is the quote “It’s never too late… to be who you thought you might be.”
The words are not just inspirational fluff. They resonate deeply for Wilkins (BA ’96), whose own path to career success was anything but linear.
Founded by Wilkins in 2000, Kitchener-based Pathways Educational Services offers education for learners of all ages, including academic upgrading, tutoring, English-as-a-second-language (ESL) courses and first aid and CPR certifications. In Wilkins’ words, “we fill in the gaps. We provide everything that someone needs to move forward.”
– Jennifer Wilkins
When she was looking to move forward in her own life and career, Wilkins was able to do so at Laurier. Arriving on campus for her first day as a Psychology student in September 1990, she didn’t fit the mold of a stereotypical undergrad. Wilkins was a 30-year-old single parent with three children under the age of six, living in government-subsidized housing and working three jobs to pay her tuition.
“While most of the students there were maybe on Chapter 2 in life, I was moving onto Chapter 4,” says Wilkins. “That was a very, very scary time. I didn’t have family support here and I didn’t have anything work-wise at that point.”
To a young Samantha Wilkins (BA ’09), Laurier’s Waterloo campus felt like an exclusive playground for her and her two brothers. They would play board games in the concourse and whip around the bookshelves in the “enormous” library playing hide and seek.
“It was the best library we’d ever seen,” says her older brother, Tyler Wilkins. “We were able to pick out whatever books we wanted and we had access to information that the other kids didn’t.”
Such were the perks of having a mother studying at university who couldn’t always find child care.
“When the kids were really young, I remember a time when I had to bring them with me to class,” recalls Wilkins. “I had them sitting on the floor at the front of the lecture hall with colouring books.”
Life was challenging during Wilkins’ time at Laurier as she performed a difficult balancing act to keep her family afloat.
“My mom wasn’t around a lot when we were younger,” says Samantha. “She worked four to midnight for a long time and then she’d come home and work on her papers. I almost felt like, ‘Why isn’t my mom around in the same way that the other kids’ moms are?’ It was only as I got older that I realized the sacrifices she was making for us.”
– Samantha Wilkins
The depth of her mother’s sacrifice became clear to Samantha when she followed in her footsteps and enrolled in Laurier’s Psychology program in 2005.
“My mom completed two degrees in six years with three kids,” says Samantha. “It took me four years to complete one degree when the only thing I had to care about was earning a bit of money to pay for my books. It’s really remarkable what she was able to do.”
Though stressful, Wilkins’ university years are also some of her most cherished. She built lasting friendships with other adult students who bonded during playdate study sessions and their annual family Christmas party.
“I loved the feeling of being at Laurier,” says Wilkins, who switched majors to Sociology midway through her studies. “It was something that was mine again, separate from being a mom. I was a different person by the time I finished going to university.”
Wilkins graduated from Laurier in 1996 with bachelor’s degrees in Psychology and Sociology. Once again, she took on multiple jobs, in addition to her family responsibilities. Wilkins put her knowledge and natural warmth to use by working with developmentally impaired individuals and completing her certification as an ESL teacher.
– Adam Wilkins
After working briefly at a job-search training facility, Wilkins was asked by a friend to do the same type of work with one of her clients at a government agency. More referrals followed and soon Wilkins had turned her basement into a classroom for adult learners. Pathways Educational Services was born.
“She began hiring staff, some of whom were the other parents we had grown up with,” recalls Adam Wilkins, her youngest son.
Within a few months, clients’ cars were parked up and down the street near Wilkins’ home. With business increasing, she was forced to find another location.
Wilkins opened Pathways’ first official site at a Kitchener plaza in 2002. As it has steadily grown – Pathways now has two locations, diverse course offerings and a dozen staff members – the business has been a true labour of love for her family. From cleaning to teaching, each of Wilkins’ three children continue to contribute to Pathways in a variety of ways. Adam serves as business development manager and even her 13-year-old granddaughter, Layla, helped build the IKEA office furniture.
“It feels fantastic to say ‘this is what my mom has built,’” says Tyler. “This is what she’s brought to the community.”
Just like its founder, Pathways has weathered many challenges over the years. While similar local businesses have floundered, Pathways persists thanks to the welcoming environment Wilkins has created and her ceaseless determination.
– Tyler Wilkins
“She just never gave up. It was never an option for her,” says Samantha, who recently co-founded a PR and marketing consultancy firm. “That has been a real lesson for me: that if a woman with three kids and not a hope in hell was able to start a business, then I can do the same and so can anyone else.”
Reflecting on her success, Wilkins says her time at Laurier laid the foundation for “everything” that came after. It affirmed her belief in education and her conviction in the words she sends in every email.
“It is just never too late,” she says. “I’ve watched people change their lives. It is possible.”
Editor's note: Pathways Educational Services is a separate and distinct organization from Pathways to Education, a Laurier-partnered program that provides youth from low-income communities the resources needed to access post-secondary education.