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U of T in the community: free classes for members of public

Long-running program opens University doors to eager minds

Law students Bobby Leung, Matthew Lau and Annie Tayyab with participants in the University in the Community program (all photos by Kelly Rankin)

Imagine the courage it takes to step onto a university campus as an adult learner with little or no previous experience being a post-secondary student.   

There are a number of reasons why some people find their way to higher education later in life, from a misspent youth to putting  family responsibilities first or just believing university was simply out of reach. 

Whatever the reason, it’s never too late to start, and the options are many.

For those interested in pursuing a degree there are programs such as Woodsworth College’s Academic Bridging Program. For people interested in participating in lectures taught by university scholars but not quite ready to commit to a degree or unsure that’s even what they want, there are programs such as University in the Community (UiC).

Since 2003, U of T has been working in partnership with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) to present UiC. But its relationship with WEA dates back to 1918 when Sir Robert Falconer, the 5th president of U of T, played an instrumental role in founding the Workers’ Educational Association of Canada.

Falconer became an honorary president of WEA upon his retirement as U of T’s president. Since then, many of U of T’s notable academics have taught for WEA including Bora Laskin, Harold Innis, Harry Arthurs and Sir Frederick Banting.

“[Falconer] was interested in establishing a forum for liberal arts learning in the community,” says Wendy Terry, president of WEA.

That initial focus is the core of the UiC program today. Humanities courses are offered to adults who are interested in learning about and exploring the big questions about life.

“While skills-related courses tend to focus on getting students into the global marketplace, the humanities encourages students to envision new possibilities that will lead to making changes in their lives and their communities,” says Professor Emeritus Peter Russell, principal of Senior College.

For UiC students such as Paul Oxley the program is more than an opportunity to learn; it also helps develop self-confidence and provides fellowship.  “I now sit on a Board,” says Oxley. “My daughter who is entering university now has a role model  – an example. I can talk to her on her level.”

When UiC was first established, it ran as a partnership between Davenport-Perth Neighbourhood Centre and Woodsworth College. For nine years, J. Barbara Rose, a senior lecturer at Woodsworth College worked diligently as UiC’s academic coordinator and enlisted U of T graduate students to teach courses in their chosen fields. Eventually, the program expanded to include Senior College and Innis College.

“Professor Emeritus Peter Russell, principal of Senior College, Professor Janet Paterson, principal of Innis College and Senior College’s UiC committee have been an invaluable resource for us,” says Terry. 

As have professors Frank Cunningham (philosophy and political science), Dennis Duffy (English), Donald Gillies (Media and Communications, Ryerson University) and Dr. John David Stewart (Faculty of Medicine).

“Not only have they taught classes,” she added. “They have been stalwart supporters of the program whom we regularly call on for help and advice.”

Students learn about the program through the network of Toronto Community Centres, through Learning Curves (a WEA publication) and by word of mouth. They also hear about the program through outreach activities. 

For example, on February 27, a group of enterprising U of T law students, Annie Tayyab, Bobby Leung, Matthew Lau and Jonathan Preece organized a literary moot for UiC’s benefit – they raised over $3000 for the program. (Pictured at right: Tayyab, Leung and Lau with organizer Joanne Mackay-Bennett.) 

“The course has introduced us to the community at large via museums, libraries and outreach activities,” says Anna Brown, a UiC student. “We have made a community amongst the participants and through getting to know the various presenters.” 

Many of the UiC students say the accessibility of the lecturers is important both intellectually and personally.
“For many students, it is a huge confidence booster to discover that they can have a conversation with an expert and not feel intimidated,” says Terry.

The program runs twice a year with a 10-week session in each of the fall and winter semesters. Innis College provides classroom space for the weekly, two-hour lectures, courses are free and are taught by volunteers - usually PhD students or retired university professors.

UiC doesn’t grade students or offer credit, but students are expected to attend lectures regularly and receive a ‘graduation certificate’ if they attend 80 per cent of a course. Assignments are minimal with an emphasis on full participation in class discussions. 

Classes are capped at 30 students per class in order to make the relationship between lecturer and student as informal as possible and thus to encourage questions and discussion.

“I am better able to express myself and speak in front of a group which I was unable to do previously,” says UiC student Rumana Khalifa.

And what about the faculty involved?

Russell says U of T faculty who teach UiC classes always have the same reaction: it is among the most rewarding teaching experiences of their university career.

March 31 to April 6 is Adult Learners’ Week in Canada. http://unesco.ca/en/home-accueil/alw-saa

Joanne Mackay-Bennett is a writer with the UiC and Kelly Rankin is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.