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Students bring university to the inner city

by Archives February 9, 2005

EDMONTON (CUP) — While courses in critical thinking are luxuries not often afforded to Edmonton’s less fortunate, several University of Alberta students are giving inner-city adults the chance to learn university subject matter.

Modelled after a similar program at the University of British Columbia, Humanities 101 was initiated by fourth-year students May Lin and Sharon Yeo in an attempt to enrich the lives of Edmonton’s poor.

The program gives Edmontonians living in poverty an opportunity to sample university-level subjects, from film studies to art history, photography and critical thinking in a semi-formal academic environment.

Lin said programs exercising the creative part of people’s minds are important as a contrast to the stark job training and literacy programs, which are often the only option for self-improvement in the inner city.

“We draw from different types of interests and [students] get a meaningful way to engage in society. We want them to find that learning is a lot of fun. It’s not just in order to get a job, but something beyond that,” said Lin.

Adults of all ages, backgrounds and abilities attend the lectures; some cannot read, and others have some high-school education. In a well-worn classroom plastered with students’ work, they sit in groups at tables, fascinated and intent to learn. Here they are given the respect afforded to any ordinary undergraduate student.

In contrast to many undergrads, who often take classes out of necessity, Humanities 101 students attend out of interest, said Phyllis Steeves, co-ordinator for the Learning Centre Literacy Association, where the classes are held.

Students critically analyzed a morning news program during a recent film studies and critical thinking class. They then shared personal feelings about the segments and discussed how the drama of televised news is played out.

According to Steeves, a desire to learn attracts these students, who come to the centre mainly by word of mouth. Other students, however, are referred by outside organizations and non-profit groups.

Hearing about the Learning Centre programs from companions on the street, Michael Smith’s interest was peaked. He now attends Humanities 101, fully engaged with pen in hand, extolling the benefits of the program.

“It makes me more literate,” he said.

“When you don’t use (your brain) you really have to look for it, but when you use it, you start thinking. Then your mind grows broader; you start thinking about more of everything.”

All instructors are volunteers, as are the student facilitators helping in the classrooms. A small grant from the university’s office of the dean of students will aid in the purchase of food, bus tickets and disposable cameras to be distributed to the students in the photography classes beginning in March.

However, budget constraints continue to be an issue for the project co-ordinators. While students beginning the UBC Humanities 101 program in 1998 were able to secure a substantial amount of funding in their first year, Lin and Yeo have had difficulty obtaining operating funds, prompting them to secure partnerships outside the university with the Learning Centre and the Boyle Street Co-op in the inner city.

The partnership with the Learning Centre allows for the use of existing classrooms, Steeves said. Students there are already working on basic literacy and math skills and are motivated to improve themselves. Lin and Yeo are hopeful they can expand the service and attract others as well. The partnerships have proven helpful, they say, giving them a firm grounding in the community.

“Having the support of the community, I think, is really important in continuing Humanities 101 long-term,” said Yeo.

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