Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell teaches a class in the Humanities 101 program at St. Mary's University College in Calgary.

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Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell teaches a class in the Humanities 101 program at St. Mary's University College in Calgary.

March 17, 2014
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

A mother with six children, Levia Quequezana has found new confidence through a program at Calgary's St. Mary's University College.

"I always put my children as my priority in life, but I put myself and my dreams in the last position in line," Quequezana said in an interview.

Through the college's Humanities 101 program, however, she was able to find the support she needs to get a university education. It gave her bus tickets to attend class, a delicious meal each day, free tuition, childcare and lots of assistance.

Now, she has just completed her first semester in the liberal arts and science program.

Quequezana learned about Humanities 101 while in a women's service agency waiting for a food hamper. She spotted an advertisement in the university newspaper. At the time she was hopeless and in despair, so the idea of furthering her education and beginning a new path in life sparked her attention.

"Having six children, and two special needs among them, gave me enough work to do at home, and I could not study to improve my English or update my career to form part of the workforce in Calgary," said Quequezana.

More than mere necessities, she wanted to provide extras for her family such as sports, guitar lessons, a ride to Banff, visits to the Royal Tyrrell Museum, entertainment at the wave pool in Edmonton and a college education. Without an education and a better career, those extras were financially unachievable.

"My biggest barriers of reaching my dream of education were that I could not afford it and, if so, I could not commit to it due to the series of medical appointments in the hospital due to the ongoing treatment for my little Pablo," said Quequezana.

Levia Quequezana

Levia Quequezana

Levia and her family arrived in Montreal from Peru in 2005. Because her husband felt more comfortable speaking English than French, the family moved to Calgary in 2006.

There, he works two jobs to support the family and is gone from the home 15 hours a day.

Quequezana said she feels like a single parent in that she is almost always alone with the children.

Her self-esteem was low, ands she was convinced that her level of English and her age would be detriments to succeeding at the university level.

She started with a class on English short story analysis in spring 2013. Quequezana had high praise for Dr. Tara Hyland-Russell and the other professors.

"Dr. Hyland-Russell explained to us what it takes to continue our studies at the university and she also brought to class a team of career counselors to talk to us," Quequezana said.

St. Mary's University College launched the groundbreaking program in 2003 to provide free university-level courses to those who experience barriers to learning. Its focus is on low-income and vulnerable people.

The program was previously called Storefront 101, and had been offered in conjunction with St. Mary's, University of Calgary, Ambrose University College and the Mustard Seed.

"Initially, it was modeled on the Clemente program that came out of New York. Earl Shorris wrote a book, Riches for the Poor. That was loosely our inspiration, but it's changed a fair bit since then," said Hyland-Russell, English professor and a member of the committee that established the program.

TRAPPED, ISOLATED

Shorris told a classroom of poor people that they had been cheated because, lacking the education to participate fully in the public world, they remained trapped and isolated.

To test his theory, he created an experimental school teaching the humanities to poor people. The results were astonishing, and many people were able to escape poverty through their newfound education.

The program in Calgary, since renamed Humanities 101, is now being run exclusively through St. Mary's University College.

"Humanities 101 focuses on the whole person, recognizing that these students face a host of barriers just getting to class," said Hyland-Russell.

The program helps people step back from the forces of poverty and provides them with the reflective space and critical thinking tools necessary to become fully engaged citizens.

"Sometimes we call these marginalized learners because they have been pushed to the edges of society in a number of different ways," she said.

Open to low-income adults, Humanities 101 welcomes students who have had difficult life events that may include immigration, unstable housing, physical disability or mental disability.

Participants must be at least 18 years of age with a minimum Grade 8 level reading and writing ability, and no previous university experience. Potential participants are also required to complete an application form and attend an admissions interview.

For Sonny Stankovic, Humanities 101 was almost like a rebirth.

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For Sonny Stankovic, Humanities 101 was almost like a rebirth.

About 42 per cent of the students in the program fall far below the low-income cut-off established by Statistics Canada, and about one-third reported living in unstable or unhoused situations, whether in shelters, halfway houses or homeless. More than 90 per cent of them reported more than one and often up to six of the following events: homelessness, drug and alcohol dependency, poverty, violence, chronic illness, disability and war.

The program is designed to provide participants with the greatest chance of success through free tuition, class textbooks and materials, hot nutritious meals prior to class, tutors, childcare, and transit tickets. They also have full access to all university facilities, including the learning centre, library and fitness centre.

To operate the program costs about $56,000 per semester. This equates to $1,870 per student, $265 for meals and $73 for transit.

In 2010, the college received some funding from Alberta Advanced Education. But when the funding dried up, the program went on hiatus until 2013.

The college's students asked what it would take to get the program up and running again. They established Friends of Humanities 101, holding a fundraiser to make up the $5,000 shortfall that was required to revive the program.

Hyland-Russell said thanks to their internal grassroots campaign, the college's staff and faculty as well as corporate donors saw this as an important initiative to support. The program was fortunate to receive a large gift from an anonymous foundation that has an interest in education for non-traditional learners.

"Our commitment now is to have a sustainable program that will have no more interruptions," said Hyland-Russell.

Humanities 103: Story and Meaning (philosophy, literature and art history) had 26 students enrolled. The fall 2013 course, running from Sept. 5 to Dec. 5, was Different Stories, Different Meanings. It introduced 31 students to the field of cultural studies through literature, history and music. English 105: Introduction to English Literature has 31 students.

EMPOWERMENT

Hyland-Russell has witnessed firsthand how the program has empowered some students, giving them a greater sense of well-being, and helping them make better life decisions.

"For some, it's giving them more capacity for employment. We've had a number of people get a job as a result of the program. In a lot of cases, it is confidence building and it's helping them figure out what they want to do," she said.

Also benefitting greatly from the program was Sonny Stankovic, who suffers from severe depression. Stankovic has a high IQ, so his therapist suggested he calm his mind by focusing on scholarly pursuits – and Humanities 101 seemed to be just what the doctor ordered.

He soon found that he was thriving in the English, history and arts class, and has since been accepted into the first-year degree program for English literature.

"The program helped a lot of people that were probably on the brink of nowhere, and it brought them alive again," said Stankovic.

"For me, I look at it as a rebirth. I had passion for nothing, but the professor (Hyland-Russell) was so passionate about poetry and literature, she ignited something in me."

PEER SUPPORT

Both the peer support and the professors were excellent, he said. Whether academic problems or personal issues, the staff provided assistance. Others in his class were single mothers or had physical disabilities, facing circumstances that would otherwise make their university education difficult.

"When you talk to them, they understand. They want you to succeed. They put a big emphasis that you don't just quit. If you need help, you can go talk to them, so it was a great atmosphere," he said.

Grateful for escaping from his situation and feeling more revitalized, he is paying it forward by helping out the new students who have since enrolled in the Humanities 101 program. He wants them to succeed too.

"The benefits of the program are that it's a place where everyone can feel safe and no one is judged, not by the regular students here or by the faculty," said Stankovic. "Everyone is here to help and support the people who want it. If you want to grow and learn and move forward and not stagnate, this is the class to take."