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The beginnings of Quest

Four perspectives on Canada’s newest university
Students & Parents took part in the inaugural convocation held August 29th, which included signing the honour code.

Last month, 80 university students drove into Squamish armed with notebooks, pencils, laptop computers, towels, boxes of Kraft dinner, and laundry machine quarters. They rolled into town, like most first year students, with the excitement of leaving home for the first time. They came anxious about meeting their new roommates but eager to make new friends. And while they were determined to earn a four-year degree, they were easily distracted by web wonders like YouTube and Facebook.

What separated this bunch from the rest of students going to university for the first time was that they were also the inaugural class of a brand-new university.

Perched above Squamish, on the shoulders of the Coast Mountains, Quest University Canada opened its doors this fall as the Sea to Sky corridor’s first university. It is a small, private, not-for-profit school where the program mirrors successful liberal arts colleges in the United States. It is also the first university of this kind in Canada.

Former University of British Columbia president David Strangway began dreaming of Quest in the late 1990s. After 50-some years in the university world, Strangway decided there was something missing in Canada’s post-secondary education system and government-funded institutions. He founded Quest, formerly Sea to Sky University, in 2002 when the legislature passed the Sea to Sky University Act. The following year, Quest obtained a 294-acre parcel of land in Squamish on which to build its campus, and in 2006, the school received approval from the British Columbia Degree Quality Assessment Board. The rest is history.

Sort of.

The story of Quest is far from set in stone. It may be off the ground and running, but the next few years will be crucial for this tiny university. If the school is successful, and its students go on to pursue great careers, then Quest may be added to the list of Canada’s leading universities. But it could also disappear into the file of private education-experiments gone wrong.

It is not every day a university is created, and it is not everyday that one is able to peak into its founding years. In an attempt to piece together the story of Quest, Pique Newsmagazine talked to four critical players at the new university: the founder, a professor, a student, and the town’s mayor. Together, their perspectives help describe what is involved in a university’s beginning.

David Strangway on starting a university

“I think we need places in Canada that are different than most of the places in Canada. Not just to be different. But to have places that really focus on undergraduate students. A place that gives them small classes and a strong working relationship with the faculty,” said Quest University’s founder. “Quest is a place that is all about the students. And it is about the faculty members working with the students.”

Not many people have a reputation large enough to be able to open a credible, alternative, private university. David Strangway is someone who does. At 73, Strangway has spent his whole career in the university scene, even serving as president of two of the largest universities in Canada, the University of Toronto and UBC.

And his list of credentials does not stop there. Other notable accomplishments by Strangway include earning a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Toronto in 1960; three years on the faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; working with NASA in 1970 as the Chief of the Geophysics Branch; serving as university Vice President as well as Chairman of the Geology Department at the University of Toronto from 1973 to 1983; and President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, an independent corporation created by the government of Canada to fund university research.

During his work as president of UBC, Strangway began to form the idea for Quest. He felt that small liberal arts colleges were an important component of the university landscape in the United States, and that Canada should have similar institutions as well.

“If you look at comparable liberal arts colleges in the U.S., you will find that they are disproportionate feeders into PhD programs... Reed College, as an example, sends more people on to PhDs on a per capita basis than say the University of Washington. Partly because they have students who are really excited about stuff, and partly because they have this intense interaction where they are just engaging students all the time,” he said.

To build his vision of an alternative-style university, Strangway began scoping out different locations in British Columbia seven years ago. Because Quest would be completely privately funded, Strangway needed to find a campus site where he could acquire additional land to sell off as market-housing, to generate revenue for the university.

This presented a problem when Strangway began eyeing up Whistler. With its access to outdoor recreation and proximity to Vancouver Strangway thought Whistler would be a great location for Quest. Unfortunately for Strangway, Whistler had decided the additional market housing was too steep a price for a university. Around the same time Quest was negotiating with Whistler, eight other communities across British Columbia approached Strangway with offers to host the university.

“In the end, we picked Squamish. Squamish made us a really fine offer of offering to put us in the official community plan and give us the zoning we needed in order to market housing,” said Strangway. “And secondly, Squamish is a location half way between Vancouver and Whistler that has all kinds of potential that we are now finding.”

The next step of recruiting faculty followed a similar trend for Strangway and his group. Approximately 100 professors approached Quest before the university began formally looking for faculty, and when Quest finally started advertising 600 people applied for four available positions.

“We interviewed 25, selected seven, thought we’d get four, and ended up getting all seven. So you know, we had our first choice,” said Strangway. “So what that tells me is that there is an enormous interest in what we are doing, for certain kinds of faculty members.”

Strangway added that he is pleased with the syllabus that has been created at Quest. He believes that by not specializing too early, students will come away with more of an overall understanding of how to look at problems, which is needed in today’s increasingly complex world.

“I would like to think that the students are going to come out as people who know how to go about taking on an issue and tackling it,” said Strangway. “I think we specialize too much, too early. We spend too much of our time trying to make a physicist a physicist, because they have to take 54 prerequisite courses today.”

Of course, Strangway’s Quest is not yet finished. Now that his vision of a university has materialized into a standing structure on the hills of Squamish, Strangway will have to prove that this new university will work. All eyes in the post-secondary educational scene are on him to determine whether Canada is ready for a small, private, liberal arts school. And Strangway seems up to the challenge.

“It’ll be interesting to see, as I keep pointing out to people, this group of founding students are actually going to have a big impact. Because if we are doing things that do not seem to be useful or so on, we will have to look at how to adjust and modify them. We cannot be dogmatic and rigid and say we know everything. Instead, we will learn together with the students,” said Strangway.

David Helfand: Creating a curriculum

An important aspect of starting a university is building a solid curriculum. Over the past two years, the nine faculty members at Quest have been diligently working together to develop a reputable syllabus.

One of these faculty members is David Helfand, who is working on the scientific aspect of the curriculum. Helfand joins Quest this year as a visiting professor, taking time off from his full-time position as department chair of astronomy and professor at the Ivy League’s Columbia University in New York. He also recently returned from a yearlong secondment at the University of Cambridge in England.

In fact, Helfand left the luxurious life of Manhattan to live in small town Canada specifically because he would get to help design a novel syllabus. He has already spent many years at Columbia working to introduce more first year science classes into the program.

“Columbia University follows a similar general curriculum to Quest, called True Core Curriculum, where all first year students have to take the same general set of courses,” Helfand said. “And my concern when I arrived at Columbia 20 years ago was that there were seven humanities seminars and zero science for students in their first year. And in my opinion, that is not idea preparation for life in the 21 st century.”

In 1982, Helfand chaired a committee at Columbia to introduce a first year mandatory class in the sciences. Twenty-three years later, the science class was finally introduced, making the freshman class of 2004 the first students who actually had to take science for their degree at Columbia.

“And I concluded that I don’t have another 22 years to add another science class. And it might be easier to go to a school that is just starting out rather than trying to change an old one,” said Helfand.

Helfand signed up with Strangway two years ago to take part in the Quest experiment and has continued to find the university’s unique philosophy and structure attractive. The faculty has worked together to design a curriculum based on a block program, where students take each class in one-month intensive blocks. The idea behind the program is to create a learning environment that is integrated and intimate.

During the first two years of their degree, every student will take the same 16 courses. Then, during the second half of their degree, students will be given the freedom to branch out into areas of their own interest. Students will be required to pick a topic and research it thoroughly. Part of their research will have to include work experience and a period studying abroad.

In Helfand’s opinion, one of the main advantages of having a block system is that students will be able to explore topics more deeply. For example, if you are studying Socrates at 2 o’clock in the morning, and your roommate is also studying Socrates, you can have a deeper conversation than if you were both reading different books.

“Students will have no other distractions or commitments. They are not taking other classes, they are completely focused on this one class and this one topic. And that gives, from a teaching perspective, an enormous amount of flexibility in the way the course material is taught,” explained Helfand.

He added that what he finds disturbing in large U.S. universities is that it is getting to the point where credentials are coming before teaching. Time is so fractured for students who are taking five courses at once that they cannot focus on a topic long enough to really learn it.

However, Helfand is not entirely convinced the one-month block program will work for science and math, specifically because four weeks may not be enough time to absorb a high level of new information. As a result, Helfand is working on developing a thread system within the block system. In the thread system, all students would take a section of related blocks over a period of time. For example, students could take a cell biology thread that would explore different aspects of cells in a string of related blocks.

Helfand is looking forward to the challenges of the block program and seeing how it will all come together.

“It does not happen every day that you get to be part of developing a curriculum and launching a new university,” said Helfand. “Many aspects are borrowed from other places, but as a whole, this is a completely unique program, and that is something that is really exciting to be part of.”

Tessa Clarance: Choosing to study at Quest

Most people pick their university based on its reputation. Not Tessa Clarance. The recent graduate from Whistler Secondary school chose to part of the inaugural class at Quest exactly because it did not have a reputation.

Clarance is one of the 40 Canadian students who have taken a leap of faith and signed up to go to Quest this year. Twenty of the other students are from the United States, and 20 are from outside of North America. All students will live together in “green” residence halls for the first two years and take classes that are being taught for the first time.

“I think it is really exciting. It will be something that we can create on our own. You know, building our own community,” said Clarance.

She added that the energy surrounding Quest reminds her of the pioneer vibe Whistler had when her parents first moved to the mountains during the town’s early years.

Clarance is also excited by Quest’s non-traditional syllabus. When she initially sat down to apply to universities in March she considered going to UBC or the University of Victoria, but in the end, she decided only to apply to Quest.

“I learn a lot differently than most people. I get bored really easily. And the way they are gong to be teaching things at Quest is really interesting,” said Clarance.

“It is new and it is just completely different. The way they set things up for you, it makes you want to learn, instead of just having to learn. It is more involved that way,” she said.

A four-year education at Quest is not cheap though. Each student pays $100,000 total, or $25,000 a year. That is about five times higher than a Canadian student would pay for an undergraduate four-year degree at UBC. Moreover, this high price has been one of the main criticisms of Quest’s private education system.

Clarance said she is not fazed by the steep price however, and believes the money is worth the education she will be getting.

“I think it will definitely pay off. I think in the long run, I will do a lot better at Quest than I would at another school, at least that is what I think right now,” she said.

Clarance, like most students attending Quest, has received a scholarship to help pay her way. Specifically, she will receive $10,000 a year. Approximately 80 to 90 per cent of the inaugural class have received scholarships, ranging from $1,000 to full tuition. Scholarships are awarded either on a need-basis or based on merit.

Of course, with new beginnings comes the potential for disappointment, but Clarance is not afraid that she will later regret her decision to go to Quest. She hopes to pursue a master’s degree later on and thinks she will have no problem getting into graduate school.

“So many schools have already said they will accept students from Quest — just from the way they do their program. I mean, obviously Quest is so different that they just could not offer a university that was not going to get you anywhere in the long run,” she said.

Ian Sutherland: A town in transition

Ian Sutherland is the mayor of a town in transition. With improvements along Highway 99 making Vancouver more accessible and the tourist industry growing, Squamish is moving away from its traditional focus on forestry and resources. The establishment of Quest within a town of 15,000 people is just one more thing that is changing the scene.

Sutherland has been a vocal advocate for Quest since the university’s early days, even saying that the university will be bigger for Squamish than the Olympics. The mayor of Squamish has already seen first hand the impact a university can have on a small town. He grew up in the university town of Fredericton, New Brunswick, home of the University of New Brunswick.

“It certainly adds a vibrancy to the community,” said Sutherland. “You get a lot of university students who are going to school and getting involved in the community. You also get people who work at the university who, generally speaking, are involved in the community. You also get events taking place in the community that you usually would not get for a town of our size.”

Sutherland said that being a centre for education is quite a logical step in Squamish’s evolution. Quest will join Capilano College to become the second post-secondary educational institute in town. The two fill different niches in Squamish’s educational makeup, with Capilano focusing more on community-based programs, and Quest catering to students from around the world. The two institutions have also developed a friendly working relationship and have actively invited each other to various events.

“The resource industry and forestry industry is still very important in the community,” said Sutherland. “But over time, there has been an evolution towards other businesses and towards outdoor recreation and tourism. And I think if we can build on what Capilano College has done with their tourism program and their credit courses and take it to Quest, it will make us a more rounded community.”

Sutherland added that in his hometown of Fredericton, the university also attracted a lot of research businesses into the community, including research labs and think tanks. If this were to happen in Squamish as well, it would create a good job base and add another dynamic to the town’s makeup.

Sutherland said that when the university was first announced, some people in Squamish were dubious it was actually going to happen. But now that it has opened, most people are excited about what the university is going to bring.

“It is great in that we’ll be on the map forever as having been part of this. I think it is exciting in the fact that Dr. Strangway has put together a university that is very unique with the block program for education and going after this liberal arts kind of school you have in the States,” said Sutherland.

“I met a few students when they were visiting there last June and July. They were students that were at the top of their classes and could quite literally have picked any one of 10 universities across Canada. And they chose to go to Quest because of the reputation of Dr. Strangway, the block programming, the quality of the faculty, and just the excitement of being part of this. I think that speaks volumes about how successful we are going to be.”

Continuing the Quest

The campus has been built, the curriculum has been designed, the students have arrived, and classes are in session, yet Quest’s journey to become an established university is only just beginning.

In the next few years, several questions will be answered surrounding the future of Quest: Is Canada ready for a private, non-profit liberal arts university? Will the block program work? Will students leave Quest satisfied with their education? Will students graduating from Quest go on to post-graduate degrees? What impact will Quest have on the Squamish community?

And will Strangway’s 10-year-old vision of an alternative university morph into a permanent player in Canada’s post-secondary education scene? This fall’s freshman class and faculty are betting it will.