How a second chance at university in Hamilton is changing lives

The Discovery Program at McMaster gives an opportunity for higher education to some who have never had the chance.
Students engage in discussion at one of the classes for the Discovery Program. (Courtesy Nelson Ruiz Blanco.)

On her first day of class, Helen Johnston turned 65. She's the oldest student in the room and she says it seemed like the right time to try something new.

'Something new' is the McMaster University program that gives Hamiltonians a chance to experience a university-level learning environment for the first time.

The Discovery Program offers higher education free of charge for Hamilton residents who, for one reason or another, faced barriers to education in the past.

"There was something in me that said, ‘that’s for you,’" she said.

'I’ve never been happier with anything else I’ve ever made'

Johnston, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, decided to do a quilt for her final project. She said as a black woman, she’s always been surrounded by Hamilton’s black history. Her quilt incorporated Hamilton landmarks with symbols used during the Underground Railroad, which led her great-great grandfather to Hamilton generations ago.

"I’ve never been happier with anything else I’ve ever made," she said, adding it’s not easy to quilt with her mobility issues, but she found a way. She runs the foot pedal with her chin.

But the program meant more to her than even the quilt. Through her classmates and the organizers she felt like she gained a community, as well as a new learning experience.

"The day I left that last class, there was a little hole in my heart," she said.

Inspired by similar programs at other institutions, Jean Wilson, McMaster’s director of the arts and science program, launched Discovery last fall with the support of community members and the university.

Student: 'I have a sense now that I belong. It’s now my city.'

After the success of the pilot program, McMaster hosted another class this year. Sixteen students of various ages and backgrounds met once a week to take part in the course, which focused on art, history and culture in Hamilton.

Instructed by Daniel Coleman, a professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster, the three-month program also incorporates a final project that the students choose themselves. Though students do not earn credits or degrees, the focus is more on the learning experience itself.

"It’s an opportunity for the rest of Hamilton to be part of a learning process and a type of education they might not have had access to," said Jeanette Eby, the program coordinator and Master’s student at Mcmaster.

"It gives them access to knowledge but in a really supportive environment."

On Saturday, the class will graduate and present their projects in the McMaster Council Chambers.

Nelson Ruiz Blanco, another student, came to Canada from Columbia as a refugee 12 years ago. At the time he was attending university, but when he came to Canada he found it was too expensive to continue his studies. For him, the course quenched his love of learning, but it gave him something unexpected:

"I feel like there was a change before the course and after," he said.

"I have a sense now that I belong. I have an understanding of the city. It’s now my city."