Discovery University Opens the Classroom to the Poor and Homeless

Free, non-credit courses aim to break down barriers and reduce social isolation.

Maurice Vernier, 52, has just finished six months in an addictions recovery program at the Ottawa Mission, a shelter for homeless men. Now living in a group home, he still has to undergo weekly breathalyser, blood and urine testing, but if he stays clean for one year he can move into his own apartment. And he’s almost there.

“I’ve been sober nine months now,” he says, ducking his head but smiling shyly. “I quit smoking four months ago, too. I really want to change everything.”

He says Discovery University is helping him do that. On this day, Mr. Vernier is sitting in the back row of a classroom in the University of Ottawa’s Tabaret Hall, where he is taking a course called Social Conflicts and Movements. A former pastor, he hasn’t set foot in a classroom since 1996 after graduating with a degree in theology from the University of Indiana.

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Discover University allows people living on a low income to participate in non-credit, university-level Humanities and Social Sciences courses at no cost. The courses are taught by university professors and help to encourage a commitment to learning, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
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Mr. Vernier surveys the room where some of his classmates are already in animated discussions or scanning today’s readings. Others quietly slide into seats and wait for the professor to call the room to order. “This has changed my life,” he says.

Discovery U is a program that allows adults who are living on a low income or experiencing homelessness to participate in free, non-credit university courses in the humanities and social sciences. The 10-week courses are taught by professors from the U of Ottawa, which also provides classroom space, Carleton University and Saint Paul University in partnership with the Ottawa Mission. Courses have been offered since 2005, starting in September and January.

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