Sunday, August 29, 2010

Learning for learning's sake


By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
September, 2010

Before heading off to the first day of class, Eve Walker prepared dinner for her sons. When the babysitter arrived, she caught a bus at a stop near her Esquimalt home.

She left an hour early to ensure she could get her bearings on the campus of the University of Victoria. She was nervous.

“I walked around and watched people,” she said. “I was looking at other people going about their way and comparing myself to them. I’m starting on this new journey. The anticipation was crazy.”

Here she was in her 30s, a single mother of two boys, a high-school dropout on welfare, with health problems that often left her fatigued, and she was headed back to the classroom.

Walker had been accepted into University 101, a program that offers a free introductory course in the humanities to people who otherwise could not afford it.

The program, launched five years ago, provides teaching in an academic setting for the poor, the homeless, the disabled, the single parent. No credits are needed to get in, nor, for that matter, are any granted. It is learning for learning’s sake.

A different professor delivers a one-hour guest lecture for each class in English, or history, or philosophy, or film studies, or women’s studies. Graduate students facilitate one-hour discussions afterwards. All volunteer their time, the reward coming not in salary but in the joy of sharing knowledge.

University 101 provides all course materials, including pens and notebooks, as well as bus fare and childcare subsidies. When you’re poor, the budget does not allow for $5 return bus fares, while even writing paper can seem a luxury.

Remarkably, the entire program runs on an annual budget of about $75,000, covered by grants and individual donors, some as large as Telus, others as modest as the Spiral Cafe.

Each class begins in a room off the cafeteria at the University Centre, as students and teachers and teaching assistants mingle over a meal. The students are a mixed crowd, including older men who have retired from labouring jobs, or woman who have raised families, or people with mental-health diagnoses, or others with an addiction history.

A new session starts this month with 30 students. More than twice that number applied.

Looking back on her first day on campus, Walker would compare it to an out-of-body experience. The grind of her daily life — the household chores, the skimping on groceries, the paucity of adult contact — was so far removed from the excited chatter of a university lecture hall that it seemed surreal.

“It made me remember some of the dreams I had when I was younger of wanting to go to university,” she said.

She wondered if she’d be able to complete the course.

Born in 1969 at Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., young Eve had a peripatetic childhood. Her mother, raising a daughter on her own, moved to the West Coast when the girl was aged four. They lived for a time as squatters in a tent on Long Beach, the girl wandering the expanse of sand on her own, enjoying outdoor meals with surfers, drop-outs, and back-to-the-landers.

Mother and daughter later lived in Union Bay in a shack with no electricity or running water and with an outhouse in the back yard. A stepfather entered the picture, as did the first of three little brothers. The family moved to Terrace and, later, Tsawwassen.

She endured sexual abuse, a prolonged experience that “caused chaos for me.”

In high school, she thought about becoming a nurse, but ended up dropping out in Grade 12. She worked a succession of jobs — at a florists and a bakery, as a waitress and a forestry technician.

A son was born. Four years ago, when she was living on Saturna Island and cleaning houses for a living, she had another son. Then, she moved to Victoria.

She suffers from depression, as well as fibromylagia, which leaves her feeling exhausted. At the same time, she knew she could not just go from one low-paying job to another.

“I wanted something more like a career, not just a job to make ends meet.”

She also knew she had to address some of her own issues.

“I think the biggest barrier was my own self,” she said.

“In the past, I’ve been my own worst enemy, getting in my own way.

“There was always that self-defeating voice in the back of my head, saying, ‘You can’t do it.’ ”

She heard about University 101 at the Single Parent Resource Centre on Gorge Road East. After attending an information session, she applied and, to her delight and apprehension, was accepted, an old dream of studying at university suddenly a possibility, even if it was not leading to a degree.

Going to school was “a highlight of my week.” She enjoyed the adult interaction she did not get at home. More importantly, she found the encouragement to enroll at Camosun College, where she is now studying office administration. When she graduates, she hopes to get a job at a medical clinic. At 41, she has more options today than she has had in some time.

University 101 proved to her her own capabilities.

“I could do it. It was possible.”

One class in particular stood out. She was fascinated by a lecture on astronomy.

She struggled to explain the significance.

“Super novas. Black holes. I was awestruck by the beauty of it all. The more we learn the more we don’t understand.”

In her newfound appreciation of the wonders of space, she found an analogy for what University 101 meant to her.

“My own universe,” she said, “is opening up.”