No one denies Quest University was a risk. From the outset the small, private, non-profit secular liberal arts university faced enormous obstacles.
But as the students of the first graduating class crossed the stage last weekend, those obstacles seemed less daunting and the future bright for a university that chose to break the mould of traditional post secondary education.
"This model of liberal arts and science universities does not exist in Canada. This was an opportunity to show that it is possible to do things quite differently," said Quest co-founder David Strangway, a former chief of NASA's geophysics branch who spent 12 years as president of the University of British Columbia.
"Canada has good research universities but not excellent ones. It is not really competitive with the best in the world. But in this area it is possible to start something that can be a role model for Canada and to show that Canada can sustain something at the peak of excellence in the world."
The idea of semester systems, auditorium-style lecture halls and tenured professors who rarely know their students' names is deeply engrained as normal in the collective North American idea of university. Ironically, that model doesn't always work to the advantage of the schools' raison d'être - education. Due to the sheer magnitude of most universities, they are unable to react quickly to student needs and can only encourage, not demand that students do their best. Sometimes encouragement isn't enough. For all the good they do, traditional universities allow for too much anonymity and too little engagement of their student bodies.
"I had friends who could basically not show up to half their classes, cram for the final and still pass the course so I really wanted to be engaged in my education and to actually have to learn, not just to spit it out for a test and be done with it," said Quest graduate Celeta Cook, minutes after crossing the stage as part of Quest's first graduating class. "I was really looking for somewhere that would challenge me to do more than just study, and to actually take my education into my own hands and make something of it. I think I'm probably more prepared as a whole than I would have been anywhere else."
Saturday's graduation ceremony was pinnacle for students, school founders and tutors - a title preferred to professor at Quest. Each took a risk by supporting the school at the outset, then an untried entity whose biggest asset was the strength its believers had in the power of education. When they came on board four years ago, students were entering a tunnel that may, or may not have light at the end - the school had no graduates or accolades to speak of. To have 49 graduates walk across the stage in gowns to accept their diplomas made this perhaps the most significant graduating class in the country.
If this year's grads had any reservations about attending a brand new, unproven and unranked university, those worries are long dissipated.
"I thought even if Quest were to fail, the experience I would gain from challenging myself to go through that experience and the people that I would meet and what lessons could be learned from my efforts would have made my time, however long, worthwhile," said new graduate and class speaker Kevin Eastwood. "Some of the hardest times the university has been through have been the most beneficial to my education and my development as a person and I regret for other students at other universities that it's not more challenging or risky for them."
Breaking the mould
Unlike the traditional model, where students choose their classes and often their degrees within the first year or two of university, Quest has a mandatory foundation program that encourages students to develop versatile intellectual capacities. For the first two years, each takes a litany of required courses that spans a range of disciplines. Economics, psychology, literature, math, history, biochemistry, philosophy - the list goes on. Sixteen courses are taught in all, the goal of which is giving students a solid base of information on which to draw. The idea is that new undergraduates can better make informed decisions about their futures when they have a broader knowledge base to draw on. By providing an all encompassing liberal arts education each student will be better prepared for further schooling and much more able to function in the world.
"I came up and I was a little uncertain as to what it would be like," said Quest psychology tutor Megan Bulloch, who taught an introduction to neuroscience to test the waters.
"As soon as I taught that class ... (the students) went from 'this is what a neuron is' to asking incredibly complex questions, putting together neuroscience, psychology, Hegel, phenomenology, and a dimensions of music course they took.
"I sat there with my mouth open thinking 'Oh my God, I didn't know brains could do this when they are this young.'"
A new approach to learning
A stunningly successful approach to academics at Quest can be attributed to the decision to have no departments and therefore no student majors. Instead, in the middle of their second year while still in the midst of foundation courses, each student has a month to develop a question around something they have a great interest in. They can choose anything they like as long as it is interdisciplinary, has a global perspective and involves experiential learning outside of the university, such as with an NGO, a government office, a research lab, factory, or community organization. At the end of their fourth year students answer their question through a Capstone project - essentially a graduate level thesis paper presented to tutors and peers.
"The students have been remarkably creative in their inventiveness, both in what their questions are and how they pursue them," said David Helfand, president of Quest and 34-year professor of astronomy at Columbia University in New York. "The idea is that every student has his or her own major, if you will, and the question is not a matter of jumping over eight course hoops but actually researching something and living something and working on something that they are personally vested in."
Few students arrive on university campuses anywhere knowing exactly why they're there or what they want to study. Of those who do, many will end up changing their degrees or having to backtrack as they come to terms with the realities of their original passion.
"I came into this thinking I wanted to do international development and then I had to take courses in economics and psychology and geology and it really opened my eyes to how broad a lot of these issues are and how having a strong base in a lot of different areas actually allows you to approach a problem from an angle that you never would have before," said Cook. "I do a lot of work with children in developing countries and it has just completely changed my mindset as to what is the best way to approach these kinds of things. I probably wouldn't have had that opportunity at another university because I would have been forced to take a political economy course instead."
Engagement is something that comes up a lot at Quest, but never rhetorically. Everything in the school curriculum is designed to encourage dialogue, interaction, problem solving, and public speaking - undeniable assets both in and out of the classroom. Its small size and unorthodox approach to learning makes it virtually impossible to glide through four years of schooling without contributing, so students learn as much from each other as they do from their tutors. In fact, it's the students who are considered key to the teaching model - their questions and ideas are what gives meat to the bones of each discipline and from that the tutors are endlessly inspired.
"I like teaching it because I like watching what they're going to do next, that part is really fulfilling after years and years of teaching and having to provide what happens next," continued Bulloch. "It's a completely different way of shifting your perspective and saying 'okay, here you go, and I'm going to have to find a way to incorporate whatever you say into this.'"
The block system
Instead of semesters, the block system used at Quest eliminates schedule conflicts for undergrads whose weekly schedule at another university would typically include five different courses taught for one to three hours per week. That kind of diversity can lend itself to a lack of focus, so a lesser-known approach known as the block system was implemented instead.
Originating out of Colorado College in the seventies, the block system is only used in 12 universities in the United States and Quest is the first to employ it in Canada. The concept is simple - education is approached in concentrated blocks of time. One subject is taught for three hours a day for three and a half weeks before moving on to the next. It allows teachers to be flexible without fear of losing their pupils' attention and students to be fully immersed in a subject without distraction.
"If you want to go for two weeks to the Great Bear Rainforest, which our ecology class does every September, you go for two weeks because you don't have a chemistry lab that afternoon and an English paper due the next day," continued Helfand.
"You're just doing one thing at a time. So coupled with the fact that none of our classes have more than 20 students in them and are seminar based and are taught by full time faculty, just leads to a level of intensity that just is not matchable in a semester system."
In the case of the block system, better doesn't mean easier. Both tutors and students admit the block system is aggressive and challenging but neither denies its effectiveness.
"More importantly than the material you can learn in three and a half weeks - and you can learn a lot - it's the curiosity you can gain for a subject. I think the truest mark of success for a tutor is influencing what students do in their spare time," said Eastwood, who will apply to grad school to study food security in the fall.
"If you pique someone's interest you don't have to encourage them or force them to become educated, they begin to do that for themselves."
Small but mighty
Quest was always meant to be small. Its infrastructure can accommodate around 650 students. In all, the university's maximum capacity is around 800, but 150 of those are expected to be off campus completing the experiential learning component of their education at all times.
Currently, Quest has 294 students and another 130 applicants for the fall, marking a 25 per cent increase in admissions this year. While still far from reaching its ultimate capacity, Quest admissions advisor Steven White said steady growth is preferred to great spikes.
"It's a slow building process and I think if we got to that point tomorrow there'd be more pains than we'd know what to do with, it would be a tough transition," he said.
"And just about 20 per cent of our student body is international, and right now that spans across 30 countries, which is pretty phenomenal so in a small classroom you're going to have a guaranteed 20 per cent of those people are from some amazing places around the world."
Small overall numbers mean class sizes remain intimate - the average number of students per class in the foundation years is around 20 and that number shrinks to fewer than 10 for the last two years. In this environment students are expected to do more than just show up. They're expected to engage diplomatically - with their tutors, the material and each other.
"You can't come into a class late without being noticed, you can't not do your work without being noticed," continued Eastwood. "We are able to talk with one another, we are able to listen to one another, and do so better and better and what we are able to do is learn from one another as people from diverse perspectives and not merely from a single tutor."
It's clear that Quest attracts a certain type of student - one who is interested in education, not just getting out from under their parents' roof.
It also attracts a specific type of tutor - one more interested in the teaching part of their job than tenure, and one still open to all there is to be learned in their various disciplines - including from students.
For each position that comes available at Quest the school receives an inventory of resumes. The result is a carefully chosen, pedigreed professorial staff with PhDs from around the world, including a high number of Ivy League heavyweights.
"To my knowledge we have gotten professors to come here, almost all of which have been our first choice and the competition for each professor's job that I'm aware of, draws somewhere between 100 - 150 applicants for each job," said founding faculty member and social sciences coordinator Eric Gorham.
"It's with very few exceptions our very first choice has come here and we've been pleased so far. We're very lucky."
Tutors are able to assess each student's strengths and weaknesses and because all are active in their fields, they are able to point them towards highly coveted internships and work experience opportunities that a professor elsewhere might miss. The experiential learning component of the program means each student is required to live in the world they are researching through their Capstone project. Many travel abroad to work with non-governmental organizations - groups that typically hire them back during summer break or after graduation.
"I'd work with kids all day long then go home and write a paper and try to find internet to send it to my advisor," laughs Cook on her experience in Cambodia, where she worked at an orphanage.
"It was a really different experience but it was incredible because you don't learn about those things from a text book the way you do actually working with children."
As a professor, gaining tenure - a.k.a job protection - is a coveted status. Meant to reward educators for excellent work and to provide a degree of academic freedom to challenge the status quo without fear of losing their jobs, an unfortunate side effect is that it can also lead to lazy, uninspired teaching by those who have spent too much time in one role. At Quest, the concept of tenure was outlawed from the start.
"I don't think any of us care about that, said Gorham.
"I left a tenured full professor position at my former university - Loyola University in New Orleans.
"Anyone who is committed to teaching and is energized by classrooms I believe will do a good enough job that the issue of tenure won't really come up because people will want to keep you and you'll want to stay there and I think what is key for us is we have principals of academic freedom which protect the professors from being censored in many ways. I think the administration respects this, the faculty respects this and the students respect this as well."
How do they do it?
As an independent, not for profit institution with cream-of-the-crop staff and state of the art infrastructure, it's difficult to imagine how Quest stays afloat. A careful combination of tuition, philanthropy and the rental of the campus facilities in the summer help balance the books. Tuition is high - $27,000 per year. That figure jumps to $35,660 when room and board is included - and 99 per cent of students choose to live on campus.
"Yes, tuition is high as there is no government subsidy. But the amount of scholarship funding is also very high," continued Strangway. "A number of students pay no tuition and many others get good scholarships. Admission is nearly need blind - if they are good enough to get in they will get the added support they need to participate.
"There are several students there now from Canada and from developing countries that could not come without that scholarship support - some pay no tuition. It is hard for people to understand that high tuition with significant scholarship for those who need it is more equitable than low tuition for all when participation in universities is already dominated by the children of the more privileged."
As a charitable organization registered with the Canada Revenue Agency, contributions to Quest are tax deductible and these make all the difference. One contributor in particular has been instrumental in the creation of the university - Vancouver's Stewart Blusson, a UBC and Berkeley-educated earth scientist who co-discovered the billion-dollar Ekati Diamond mine outside of Yellowknife.
With his backing the school was able to buy a 225-acre parcel of land in Squamish. A bridge was built to improve access and a number of pieces of land were sold to private developers, with the profits financing the construction of the campus. The university still owns 67 acres of land, and thanks to the financing mechanism is debt free - it owns its buildings outright.
"I'm just a lover of science and education," said Blusson who attended the graduation ceremonies Saturday.
"One of the traumatic moments for me was when I looked up and realized after you go through higher education there is a point at which you can't keep going through more formal education, you just get to a certain point and that's it.
"I've always wanted to express that feeling of education somehow and as it turns out we ended up with the ability to do so because of some good luck up North and wanted to carry on with the idea with younger kids getting the full concept of learning how to learn.
"That's such a key because from there on everything else is wide open."
Everyone involved with Quest speaks openly about the gamble, but all admit it was worth it.
"Oh yes, it was a big risk...not just for us at the funding stage but for all the people that came and devoted their lives to it," continued Blusson. "And it was a risk for the students and their families - I think they've been well rewarded now."
The rewards aren't just seen in this year's graduating class, whose members are carrying on to law school, grad school, think tanks, Oxford University and various NGOs, but in the overall ability of the school to really tap into its students' potential. In a National Survey of Student Engagement, a tool used to measure the true quality of undergraduate education based on level of academic challenge; active and collaborative learning; student-faculty interaction; enriching educational experiences; and supportive campus environment, Quest shone the brightest.
Out of 1,500 universities and colleges surveyed last year in the U.S. and Canada, Quest ranked number one in all categories. In Canada their ranking was off the scale.
"It's just a reflection of the fact that starting from scratch has its advantages - it has its challenges also, but it has its advantages and you can think of all the things that don't work in a regular university and you can do them differently," said Helfand.
"We have a really radical approach here that is clearly extraordinarily effective.
There are still many things we are going to be changing. One of the great virtues of a new organization is that it's not ossified and one can continue to change."