Employment equity statistics indicate that 42% of all the course participants are racial minority and Aboriginal women, and women with disabilities have constituted 10% of the total (5). A number of accommodations have been arranged to facilitate the participation of women with disabilities, including the signing interpretation of all classes when women with hearing impairments are present, and the location of classes in wheelchair accessible buildings.
The valuing of diversity in this program extends also to the format and the content of the classes, where a variety of women's life experiences is valued and affirmed. The course is an interdisciplinary one, with material drawn from academic fields such as Sociology and Canadian Literature. The readings are all by women authors and have included such works as More than a Labour of Love by Meg Luxton, Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood, The Fire Dwellers by Margaret Laurence, as well as articles and short stories such as Alice Munroe's "The Office," "Poets in the Kitchen" by Paule Marshall, "Cultural Retention, Cultural Ties" and "Girl" by Jamaica Kincaid, and "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen.
The course literature provides inspiration for self-reflection as participants examine their own lives and goals. Discussion of individual experiences, ideas and values is at the heart of the course and, as these are shared, common realities and struggles are identified. The classroom becomes a forum for a critical analysis of the societal attitudes and structures in which the women live and work. Through this process of identifying obstacles and shared experiences, the women gain a sense of empowerment.
A Feminist Approach to Learning
The course actively nurtures women's academic abilities. The instructors from the Women's Studies Program are warm and encouraging feminists who promote a supportive learning environment. Besides being excellent teachers, they understand that all the participants are holding down full-time jobs and are likely juggling significant family demands while trying to fit university level studies into their busy lives. Time is taken to talk about how to meet these challenges and the women share their coping strategies with each other.
The program is designed around the learning needs of women in other ways as well. Susan Booth's work on women's learning styles suggests that most women learn optimally in an environment in which they can participate and work cooperatively, interact with others verbally, learn from material that has personal significance, be multi-focused, verbally express their feelings and personal connections, and be highly aware of their own self and other's feelings (6).
The University Preparation Program is built on this "relational" approach to learning. Fundamental to the program are the relationships between participants and teacher and among the participants. Discussion and exchange of ideas is at the centre, and comments on numerous evaluation forms endorse this relational style. Asked what they like best about the course, women have written: "the group discussions and input/direction from the professor ...individual sharing ...the broad age range of women sharing different perspectives"; "the reading of articles relevant to women's issues and the class discussions"; "the exchange of ideas with other classmates and oral presentation."