Last winter, Don Macbeth was in a "horrific situation." Living on long-term disability due to clinical depression, the 59-year-old former social-service worker was staying in a downtown homeless shelter, where he'd been living for over two years.
He found temporary respite in the form of University 101, a free three-month course at the University of Victoria that affords people living in poverty access to higher education.
The program, which runs two nights a week, features lectures and class discussion on a host of topics in the humanities and social sciences.
"I'd entered the program as an escape from my circumstances," says Macbeth, who now lives in public housing. "But what I found was a group of people facing challenges and an opportunity to make use of the resources at the university.
"More than anything, it gave me a sense of community and participation. I think those are the two key words because the real challenge for somebody who's poor, disabled or in hard circumstances in this society is the ongoing sense that you're not participating."
The main objective of the program "is to make post-secondary education more accessible and in particular, to make the knowledge practices at the university available to wider range of people," says Becky Cory, who coordinates University 101.
To make it easier for students to attend class, the program offers subsidies for childcare and transportation and provides a free meal at the beginning of each session.
(Cory notes University 101 receives funding from the university, but also requires donations to operate.)
Started in 2006, the program accepts about 30 students a term, representing roughly half the applications it usually receives.
"We prioritize people who have the least access to post-secondary education," Cory says of the admissions criteria.
Participants have included seniors on fixed incomes, single mothers, laid-off blue-collar workers and people who have struggled with addictions or other mental-health issues.
"The depth and breadth of experience in that classroom, because of the age and social situation of the people involved, absolutely outweighs any other learning environment I've been in," says Macbeth, who previously studied at Simon Fraser University, but never completed his degree.
UVic professors volunteer their time to deliver the lectures, while teaching assistants, also volunteers, facilitate class discussion.
Though they receive no formal academic credit, students choose which assignments to complete and are told they can be creative in how they approach their work.
"What really holds the course together is the practice or idea of critical thinking," says Cory.
"By critical thinking I mean asking questions about why things are the way they are, why we think the way we do and how our society is structured.
"It's very academically rigorous and that is important for us and important to the students."
The high level of discourse, Macbeth says, helps to fight the stereotype that people "who are on the margins are somehow a monolithic, not-very-bright group."
Thursday is the deadline to apply for the upcoming fall session, which focuses on the humanities.
In order to register, participants must first attend a mandatory information session.
Three are scheduled for next week: Tuesday at 2: 30 p.m. at Our Place Society (919 Pandora Ave.); Wednesday at 12: 30 p.m. at Rainbow Kitchen (500 Admirals Rd.); and Thursday at 7 p.m. in Room C112 in the university's Clearihue Building.
Application forms will be available at the meetings and are also available online.
For more information, go to web.uvic.ca/uni101 or call 250-721-6516.