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UBC Reports | Vol. 50 | No. 11 | Dec. 2, 2004

Writing 101 Strikes a Chord in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

By Leah Marchuk

A unique Canadian university outreach program that makes liberal arts education accessible to inner-city residents is expanding in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Growing out of the successful Humanities 101 program, which was started seven years ago and boasts 150 graduates to date, UBC will begin offering residents a new writing course in January.

Humanities 101 was started by two UBC students who hoped that, by offering low-income people access to education in the humanities, they could correct some of the educational imbalances that exist between economically polarized groups. Students pay no fees for resources, including books, materials, meals, bus transportation, fieldtrips and childcare. The course seems to have struck a chord. Many graduates have gone on to further studies and full-time employment.

Now Writing 101, an intensive, hands-on course teaching the principles of academic, business and creative writing, has just completed a successful pilot with 15 area residents, to favourable reviews.

“Learning the basics, getting a foundation after 40 something years - it was nice to have that opportunity,” says Bruce Alexander, a graduate of the UBC Humanities 101 program.

Alexander, who currently works for a Vancouver auto parts manufacturer, says he struggled with English grammar his entire life before taking Writing 101.

“I’ve read a number of books on how to improve my writing, and it just never really took,” says Alexander, who says the course made the difference. “It’s like if you put a boat in a tub of water and it sinks, well you need to know where the holes are before you can fix it.”

“It’s even improved my ability to communicate with fellow employees,” he says.

Professor Peter Babiak, academic director of Humanities 101, which covers a broad range of disciplines, says the chance to learn how to write well resonates in a particular way with DTES residents.

“Creative writing means more to them than to average university students,” says Babiak. “It’s not just a form of expression, it’s a way of being heard.”

“There are stories that you want to tell, that you want people to hear, that are important for people to hear,” says Alexander.

Writing 101 assignments were designed to reflect the interests and concerns of students. Students were required, for example, to conduct library research on British Columbia’s Safe Streets Act, which will impose fines on panhandlers.

By encouraging feedback on the course -- both in class and at student-attended steering committees -- Babiak hopes students will have a voice in the direction of Writing 101. “If it weren’t for the fact that we have the support of our graduates, the course wouldn’t be nearly as successful.”

From the perspective of Ramona Montagnes, who not only co-developed Writing 101 but also teaches it, the course is beneficial for everyone involved.

“The students are lively, intelligent, and highly motivated. I believe I have learned more from [them] than they have from me. I was unaware of many of the social issues that form their lives and found this to be quite humbling.”

Babiak says the innovative Vancouver outreach program is gaining international attention.

“We have anywhere from 40 to 60 calls per year from Canada, the US, and abroad who’d like to create an imitation program,” says Babiak. “It’s not only innovative, it’s cutting edge. This stuff is just not done at other universities.”

The program’s web site, http://humanities101.arts.ubc.ca, features the work of some of its graduates.

Leah Marchuk is a third-year student in the international relations program, and working as a research assistant at the Dean of Arts Office.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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