University 101 opens doors to education that seemed closed shut.
LAST YEAR DARCY MERRICK WAS STRANDED ON THE FRINGES OF SOCIETY. “I compare it to writer’s block. I had life block, was depressed and not going out,” says the soft-spoken Victoria poet who has spent much of his life dealing with early childhood abuse in schools, homelessness and health problems. Then he joined University 101, an experimental community course in humanities launched by the university to offer the potent joy of learning to disadvantaged people, many of whom, like Merrick, have been floundering in “a sea of troubles.”
With UVic staff and community members, Merrick helped to set up the free introductory course designed for people who would not usually consider university because of social or economic barriers. It ran in January through April and Merrick was one of the first students.
It changed everything: “Uni 101 opened my mind. It got me out reading and functioning. I’ve started a new lifestyle and I’m feeling good about myself.”
Now Merrick is taking more courses and continues to volunteer on the board for University 101: “I found faith in teachers that I’d lost years ago and respect for higher education, I want to help other people to discover that.”
Among the diverse group of 21 students were recovering drug addicts, those with mental health issues, single parents and others living close to the poverty line. For 10 weeks they wrapped their minds around critical thinking, history and the great literature of Plato, Eliot and Shakespeare,
The first University 101 pilot proved such a success that the university and various community groups organized a second University 101 course this fall. A fresh crop of students is attending twice-weekly sessions at UVic’s downtown campus. The evening begins with a meal followed by a lecture and discussions.
“It’s fantastic,” says coordinator Becky Cory, BA ’04. “These students have a passion for learning. Really, it’s their energy and enthusiasm that has made this course such a success. Nobody wants the classes to end.”
The first group wrapped up its course with a convocation-style ceremony. The usually sedate senate chambers were packed with beaming Uni 101 students, their friends, families, UVic faculty, staff and community supporters. There were cheers—and a few tears—when one by one the participants went up to receive their completion papers. A couple of students rapped their appreciation for the course. Many, like Merrick, told how University 101 has improved their lives.
UVic history instructor Kristin Semmens was thrilled to hear their stories. She was one of the main instigators behind the UVic course after hearing about a similar program in New York City and seeing it in action in Vancouver. “I knew this would be great for the students and the community,” says Semmens, who taught one of the sessions. “But it’s a two-way street. UVic has benefited enormously from the ties to the community and from everything that this diverse group has brought.”
No one is resting on their laurels. Like Merrick, several of the former students are on the board helping to spread the word about University 101 and seek more support to continue and expand the courses. Organizers are planning a University 102 course next year focusing on social sciences and they are looking for more sponsorship help.
It will be open to all former 101 graduates but Lauri Nerman couldn’t wait. Among Uni 101’s many star students, Nerman was motivated to take a summer course in creative writing. Now she has earned scholarships enabling her to pick up the threads of her UVic degree that she dropped in 1974.
“Uni 101 was a wonderful stepping stone back to the world of education,” says Nerman, who hopes eventually to pursue a career in counselling. “It boosted my self-confidence and helped me realize that I could go back—that I have something to give and a way to give it.”