Nearly 400 “Old Boys,” or alumni of the prestigious boys’ school Upper Canada College, served and died during The First World War and Second World War.
To keep their legacy alive and to connect current students with Canada’s war history, the school launched the Immersive Military History program in 2016.
Limited to 12 students, program participants are selected through essay submissions. Once selected, they then adopt one of the Old Boys who served in Europe and spend months researching everything they can about their solder: where they came from, what they studied at UCC, where they served, and how they died.
“It’s a starting point for thinking about history differently,” said Gregory McDonald, Faculty Head of the Immersive Military History program.
The pinnacle of the program is a six-day trip to Europe for the boys to get a first-hand look at the fields and sites where their Veterans served and died.
The experience transcends classroom learning, says McDonald, who has seen what an impact the trip makes on his students.
“We were standing at a grave, and one of the boys said ‘he could not have gone. He volunteered to go. He would have had a career in finance, and he gave it all up.’ And he was completely befuddled as to how somebody could make that contribution. It was a really interesting moment for him to say he gave up all that to die at Vimy,” recalled McDonald.
According to the history teacher, the experience is a visceral and emotional one that transcends anything found in textbooks or videos.
“It humanizes what Canada and what Canadian men, women, soldiers, participants did. The scale of the sacrifice is revealed when you’re obviously in that landscape, just the number of the Commonwealth graves. I think it’s an appreciation for the scale of sacrifice that puts it in a very immediate emotional context and it makes it live in a way that no Youtube, no video, no documentary, even war literature, can quite do. It’s a very personal experience for the kids,” added McDonald.
The students visit sites like Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and Arras during their trip.
After they return, the students report their experiences back to their classmates.
“They talk about their experiences and what it was like to be at the grave of someone they’ve gotten to know historically,” commented McDonald.
Thanks to these presentations, the word spreading across the school like wildfire and is peaking the interest of UCC’s students. McDonald says already 40 applications have been handed in for next year’s trip.
This all-expense-paid trip is possible thanks to the Cleghorn family. After retiring from the banking world, John Cleghorn was looking for a way to give back to his community.
“He said he always had a passion for Canadian history ever since he was in Grade 9. And as an adult he travelled to the battlefields and felt that the experience of seeing Canadian war graves and Commonwealth graves was very moving to him,” said McDonald.
The fund for the Immersive Military History program was then setup, and the school will be taking its third trip in the summer of 2018.
UCC is also currently in the process of developing a Military Scholarship specifically for students from military families. The program is being developed in conjunction with the True Patriot Love Foundation, whose founder, Shaun Frances, is a UCC Old Boy.