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University of Toronto offers free courses

Wendell FOX

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Academe comes to Regent Park

U of T takes higher learning to residents in one of city's poorest neighbourhoods



Wednesday, April 7, 2004 - Page A13

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Students at Regent Park's tuition-free university may not have the ideal campus lifestyle. But for Fazilatun Nessa, a single mother who moved here from Bangladesh, it's the closest she will get to higher learning.

"I never got the opportunity to go to school here . . . because I was too busy raising my kids and [working]," she said. "I had the intention to go to university or college, but unfortunately I [couldn't] afford it."

So once a week for 10 weeks, Ms. Nessa attended a makeshift University of Toronto classroom in Regent Park, the vast public-housing development on the eastern side of downtown Toronto known for its poverty, drugs and crime.

She is one of 40 who have gone through the Regent Park Learning Exchange Program, a non-credit course -- one held in the fall of 2003 and the other that concluded yesterday -- meant to build confidence and encourage residents to further their education. More courses are now in the works.

Half of the students enrolled in the spring lecture received their certificates of completion at U of T last night.

Ms. Nessa, who took the fall 2003 course, keeps her certificate close. She had received a degree in sociology at Bangladesh's Dhaka University, but it's not recognized in Canada, she said.

The U of T course "enhanced my knowledge and my skills. I got back my confidence," she said yesterday.

The pilot course this year was about clothing from different perspectives, whether it be religion or science. Seven professors from the university volunteered their evenings to lecture students, who were between the ages of 20 and 60.

The criteria for admission? "They just have to be interested," said Frank Cunningham, who helped steer the program and is also principal of Innis College at U of T.

Come September, the university is expanding the program by offering Regent Park residents non-credit courses in food, philosophy and the history of sports. There are also plans to build a classroom in the neighbourhood specifically for this program.

"In 35 years of teaching, I've never been involved in a course with as much student enthusiasm," Mr. Cunningham said. "They're all there because they're interested in the learning experience. They're not there because their parents have told them that they have to go to school."

Even though this was a non-credit course, students were given homework and marked on their assignments. "For people who are unsure about whether they can handle university-level reading and writing, it really does give them a boost that they can do it," Mr. Cunningham said.

The Regent Park program is modelled after a similar one run by the University of British Columbia for residents of Vancouver's grim Downtown Eastside.

Mr. Cunningham said many residents of Regent Park have studied at the university level in their home countries. "But they come to Canada and find themselves driving taxi cabs and cleaning floors. This gives them an opportunity to . . . engage with others and with a university professor in topics that expand and exercise their minds."

Payer Mojumder, who immigrated with his family from Bangladesh about six years ago and works at a used-car dealership, received his certificate last night. He has a science degree from the university in his home country that is not recognized here. The Regent Park resident wants to try to get into university again.

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