McMaster Discovery Program offers a chance to learn for learning’s sake

Friends and family came out to cheer on the McMaster Discovery Program's graduating class of 2017.

Marina Bredin spent all summer interviewing and choosing students for a special course on diversity and resilience. She fielded phone calls and read applications, interviewed dozens of applicants and triple-checked every aspect of the logistics. By the first day of class, she was confident things were in good working order.

“Then we had our first class and all these people with rich lives came in and poured all this life into it, and everything changed,” she says. “It made everything a million times better.”

The McMaster Discovery Program, run by the Arts and Science program and supported through the Office of the President, offers adults in the community who face barriers to education the chance to take a university-level course at no cost.

“It’s a big time commitment — every Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. — for solely the opportunity of learning,” says Bredin, the program’s coordinator. “That’s what’s important to them. They get to come, be part of a community and a group and to learn.”

The youngest student in this year’s class was 25, the oldest were in their 70s. Their backgrounds are as diverse as the obstacles they face — financial trouble, an illness or a disability.

“They are genuinely excited about learning, genuinely committed,” says Anju Joshi, an associate professor in the department of Health, Aging and Society, who taught the program this year. “Some face pretty tough health challenges and other obligations, but they showed up every Saturday, despite whatever was going on, because they wanted to be there.

“They didn’t look for excuses, they looked for opportunities.”

This year’s course, Diversity and Resiliency: Human Differences and our Ability to Overcome Challenges, focused on recognizing diverse identities and developing tools to address adversity the students and others in the community face.

The projects they tackled included strategies for building resilience through music, or while living with an invisible disability, or after being widowed. “A few of the students did their project on establishing resilience after losing a spouse,” Bredin says.

Every week, students took home a mindfulness assignment, which involved learning about their own strengths and gifts.

“For many, it was an exercise in learning different ways to become more resilient,” Joshi says. “They came back with such powerful stories of what they learned about themselves while doing their assignments. We had open discussion about their struggles and their accomplishments, and their growth. It was wonderful.”

More than one student started the course anxiously, unsure of how to address a room full of strangers, nervous to ask questions. By the end of the year, they were standing up and doing a presentation for the whole class.

“The growth I’ve seen in past weeks has been indescribable,” Bredin says. “Everyone gets something different out of the class, but the goal for many was to develop confidence and know that their voices are important.”

Others have found kindred spirits. Two students who started the year as strangers now meet every Thursday to spend the day together, cooking and catching up.

The class of 2017 held an emotional graduation ceremony last week, watched by their families and friends.

One reason students relate to the Discovery Program is the level of support it gets from the community, Joshi notes.

“When I taught about diversity and resilience, I invited some wonderful people to share their knowledge and expertise about resilience and their diverse identity,” she says. “When we talked about poverty, someone living in poverty talked to the group. Another speaker might have faced a lot of racism, or homophobia. We addressed meaningful, heavy topics with help from leaders in the community.”

Many of the Discovery Program’s alumni remain involved in it. Some are part of an advisory board or help choose future students for the program. Others participate in storytelling sessions or come to speak to the group.

“What’s developed in class holds on for many, many years,” Bredin says. “I run into people from class on the street and it’s so delightful. Really a beautiful thing.”

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