The student’s Quest

From dirt and dreams to student favourite: what’s different about Quest University is pretty much everything


When Celeta Cook of Deseronto, Ont., applied five years ago as a 17-year-old to Quest University, the hilltop site in the coastal mountain community of Squamish, B.C., was little more than dirt and dreams. “I did my preview day in a hard hat and a reflective vest,” says Cook, now part of Quest’s first grad class this April 30. The library will be finished, she was promised, “it just hasn’t been built yet.” Far from being put off, she was excited. “All right,” she said, “I’ll see you guys in September.” She was one of 73 students in 2007. There are now about 300, as it builds toward its capacity of 650—still smaller than most of the high schools the students came from.

For Cook, it was a good fit. Quest, a private, not-for-profit undergraduate liberal arts and sciences university, is not for the faint of heart. Its promotional literature welcomes “iconoclasts, convention-challengers, pioneers, risktakers, edge seekers, creators . . . ” The same criteria apply to its faculty, and certainly its outgoing president, David J. Helfand, who divides his time between two coasts. He’s a teacher and administrator at Quest, and he chairs the astronomy department at New York’s Ivy League Columbia University.

What’s different about Quest is pretty much everything. Classes are capped at 20 students and average about 15. There being no place to hide, Quest has an astonishing level of student participation. Helfand points with pride to the new results of the 2010 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), revealed in this issue of Maclean’s. Quest’s first-year students (there were no senior students yet to survey) recorded student involvement and satisfaction far beyond larger, older universities. It finished top among Canadian universities in five key outcomes: academic challenge, student-faculty interaction, supportive campus environment, active and collaborative learning, and enriching educational experience. “That’s the one bit of truly independent evidence that we have that what we’re doing is really quite special,” Helfand says of the NSSE scores.

One of the greatest contributors to engagement is Quest’s block program, unique in Canada. Subjects are taught one at a time in 3½-week blocks: three hours a day of class time, and hours more of research, reading, group work and writing. For instance, students are immersed in the works of Homer, Plato and Thucydides for one month, then move on, to visual mathematics or ecology or political economy. By third year, students have picked “the Question,” an intellectual inquiry of their choosing that they’ll spend the next two years exploring from every conceivable angle. Cook’s is: “Why do we care?”—a look at what motivates empathy versus apathy. Julian Seemann-Sterling, a third-year student from Berlin, is exploring: “Is world government possible and desirable?” Carmen Petrick, a third-year student aiming for medical school, asks: “What are the social practices that lead to the spread of pandemics?”

Students also do up to four experiential learning blocks, such as a work term, internship or study abroad. Cook put her question to the test by working 2½ months in a Cambodian orphanage for children with physical and mental disabilities. One student worked for a computer security firm. Another went to a Buddhist ashram.

In all cases, the block system is key. It gave tutor Maï Yasué the freedom to camp with her “ecological self ” class on a remote west Vancouver Island beach for 13 days, something that would have been impossible with students juggling four other courses. Helfand admits he was skeptical about the idea when he was brought in by Quest founder (and former University of British Columbia president) David Strangway to consult in Quest’s planning. By the time the school opened, he was so smitten with the program he took a leave from Columbia to teach four course blocks—a “transformative experience,” he says. “I’ve been at Columbia for 34 years teaching in the standard semester format with lectures.” It is, he says now, “a totally ineffective way of teaching.”

A rare few other academics are coming to a similar conclusion. Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie cancelled classes in late January to look at a shift to a block system. Algoma president Richard Myers is an enthusiastic proponent, noting the system would enhance off-site learning, attract foreign students and stop that “end-of-term panic that grips students in late November and late March” as all course requirements come due at once. The issue, after further study, will be determined by Algoma’s senate. Helfand has also consulted at the University of Northern British Columbia where, too, there is some interest, and much skepticism, about block teaching.

Helfand had another reason for hanging around Quest that first year. He was curious: “What kind of students would come to a university that didn’t exist?” Adventurous ones, it turns out. The students go through a rigorous selection process. They submit a standard application, write an essay, and produce an original work, be it music, art, or sporting achievement. The interview, in person or on Skype, is key to ensure they’re a good fit. “Last week we admitted a student who had a 74 average and rejected a student who had an 86 average,” says Helfand. “One was ready to engage with this kind of education and the other one was clearly not.”

Building a private university with enviable class sizes doesn’t come cheap. Tuition runs $27,000 with another $8,660 for room and board. The university, recognizing the barrier, offers full and partial scholarships. “Eighty-five per cent of our incoming students, as with our current students, will receive one or more of the three forms of financial aid we provide: merit-based scholarships, need-based bursary grants, and/or on-campus employment opportunities,” says Melanie Koenderman, dean of student affairs.

For students who make the grade, the experience is almost unparalleled. Everyone knows your name, from the professors (called tutors to emphasis the commitment to teaching) to the cafeteria staff. When life sciences tutor Annie Prud’homme Généreux was asked to write a reference for a senior applying to grad school, she knew the student so well she rattled off a five-page letter. How many undergrads get that from their professors?

In part the bond comes from growing an idea together. “I feel like Quest is mine, in the sense that I’m shouldering a burden for its success or failure,” says Prud’homme Généreux. Hours earlier, Megan Myles, a spirited second-year student, said much the same as she led a tour of the campus. “We’re here to help create a university,” she said, looking past a residence building to the forest beyond. “We didn’t come just to attend one.”


The student’s Quest

  1. My daughter is attending and excelling at Quest. Now in 2nd year, she is excited about every class she has taken and is always “sad” at the end of each block!
    Having attended conventional university myself (many decades ago!) I can NEVER remember being as inspired, curious and motivated to learn about an astonishing range of topics as she and her fellow students are.
    Which is really what higher education should be all about – the joy of learning about everything and then being ready to step out into the world armed with the skill of critical thinking.
    Quest fosters this philosophy – from the block system to the high quality profs, to the small class sizes and emphasis on student participation and responsibility.
    I highly recommend parents consider allowing their children the opportunity to flourish in Quest’s excellent but perhaps somewhat unconventional environment.

  2. My younger daughter is also attending Quest, in 1st year. For her, Quest’s style of teaching is ideal because it allows her to be immersed in each given subject, and she appreciates the small class size. Meanwhile, her slightly older sister is in second year nursing at a conventional university, which is the right style of teaching and program for her. As the article indicates, Quest isn’t for every promising university student, but for those who have the privilege of attending, it’s generally life-changing.

  3. Thank you for your feature on Quest University.

    Throughout high school, our middle son questioned all the answers, and took academic self-expectations to near-record low levels. Almost overnight, the tutors, students and staff at Quest rechanneled all the energy that he for years had dedicated to proving the extent to which he simply did not care. Within the first month at Quest, the kid who had voluntarily done exactly NO homework for 5 straight years suddenly could not wait to go to class, and then, to our delighted astonishment, share what he was learning with us.

    The block program has proven to be a no-brainer in the quality-of-learning category. There is no opportunity to coast, and the reward of closure is always less than a month away. Our Quester is less stressed, while getting a broader, deeper and more practical education than his older brother who attends a top-tier American liberal arts college.

    Quest’s Ivy-league quality faculty, tight-knit community and pervasive sense of motivation amongst its students create a synergy that I have never sensed in the decades I’ve spent on and around college campuses. As added bonuses, Squamish is a perfect place for anyone living a physically active lifestyle, and a 40 minute drive from Vancouver, one of the prettiest and most cosmopolitan cities in North America. When visiting our son at Quest, I have to pinch myself to realize that my child actually gets to LIVE in this spectacularly beautiful place.

    At 70% of the cost of name-brand private American colleges, the Quest education is probably the best money we’ve invested in any of our kids. Roughly half way through, we have already reached our goal in agreeing to help our son pay for Quest: He has learned to love to learn.

  4. Quest is an astonishingly great university! My elder son attends in second year, and is thriving. How many parents of children at other universities have their children calling several times a week to share their ideas and learning?! I know I never called home from university except to ask for money.
    I just returned from the annual NAIS conference. Quest’s approach, from non-tenured faculty, to focused block teaching, to learning for its own sake, to courses rooted in questions and problem solving is what educators see for the future of education. Quest students are already living that future. COngratulations, Quest.

  5. I am always amazed by Maclean’s completely uncritical coverage of Quest. Do they have to pay for it or do they barter something for it?

  6. My daughter is one of the 73 original Quest students and will be part of the first graduating class. She has had an amazing educational experience and has inspired several students from her small public Montessori high school to follow her example and attend Quest University as a continuation of their Montessori education.

    She has maximized her experience through the block program, not only to immerse herself into the focus of each course, but to then travel for study abroad programs. She has been accepted to the Peace Corps following her graduation and then plans to obtain a doctorate upon her return to the United States. I could not be more pleased with her educational choice to attend Quest University.

  7. I’m always amazed by people who make snide comments without doing basic research. Macleans ran a rather scary article about Quest on October 21, 2008. I remember it because I read it, researched the issues surrounding Quest, and addressed my concerns about Quest’s finances before my son enrolled.

  8. Jsmyth: D.A. Williams took the words right out of my mouth. You need to do some research on Quest and then you can talk about how critical Maclean’s is being. If you had already done research, you would know that Quest gives students the opportunity to immerse themselves in problem solving and asking questions about the world. The courses are demanding, but students accept the challenge because the return is an unparalleled learning experience for an undergrad. A student’s engagement is key to this experience. That’s why Quest ranks first on all categories of the NSSE; Quest recognizes that to engage students, the courses themselves must be engaging. Rather than cramming knowledge into your brain to do well on tests, you actually take in what you’re learning and know it for the rest of your life. I have to ask a question now, something that Quest students, unlike most students at the usual big name universities in Canada, have the privilege to do every day during sessions with their tutors; what is it to be educated? As far as I can tell, Quest answers that question better than any other undergraduate institute in Canada.

  9. Anyone who has doubts about or has interest in Quest ought to try to visit. I am speaking as a parent of a student who is nearing graduation, but I have seen enough of several other schools to recognize Quest’s success.

    This school may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it will excite and empower serious scholars. Students are expected to process continual and substantial reading assignments and submit frequent projects and writing assignments. Blocks are intense. In the liberal arts and sciences mode, every student is expected to master fundamental skills and cognizance in the arts, sciences, math, economics, sociology, etc. Students are graded, in part, on their willingness to participate in classroom discussions. A subject such as geology may be researched (e.g., by taking extensive measurements and notes) on a nearby mountain peak. Ecology may be taught in a far-away corner of the Great Bear Rain Forest, amid rare kermode bears. My daughter did both of these. This is the road less traveled, but one I believe will be fine and substantive preparation for any turn of life.

  10. My wording in the posting above was careless in that saying “My daughter did both of these” after stating that “Ecology may be taught…” might seem to indicate that she was somehow teaching, which wasn’t the case. Rather she participated in the two mentioned, and at least two additional courses that involved outdoor field work related to the course material. Understanding and valuing the natural world is one of the central themes of Quest’s program, and mountaintops and wild lands are just outside the windows.

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  12. My son is a student at Quest. Finding the right fit for him was not an easy task – iconoclast and outdoorsman that he is. There are plenty of small colleges with “alternative” programs but most of them seem to me to offer an easy path to a college degree for kids who don’t want to face the hard work involved in a rigorous quality education. That is not the case with my son – he never shys away from hard work but he needs to be motivated. Quest holds that promise with its unique structure, its one class at a time, block style and a first rate faculty. At least one ex-Harvard student here tells classmates that he’s had to work harder at Quest than he ever had to work at Harvard but he loves it. So its small, intimate and very rigorous. Their big challenge in the short run – will be in getting first and second year students to hang in through the process of taking those classes they have deemed as their prerequisites. There are too few choices and with the self directed nature of the education overall that runs contrary to the notion so that first and second year students don’t really get the full flavor of the Quest education unless their endure the first two years.

    In the long run their challenge will be to keep the character of the University when it becomes one of the most ‘in-demand” universities in North America, and I predict it will. How will they continue to serve the iconoclasts and questers when students who have aced their SAT’s and graduated at the top of their classes want to go to Quest as well?

  13. Andrew our now 21 year old son will be one of the first graduating students at Quest, on April 30 th.2011.

    He has had an amazing journey. In the 6th grade at Collingwood Private School in West Vancouver they realised his brian did not compute from the written word to the brain. ( We still wonder why it took them 6 grades to realise this ? ) He went thru the International testing and was allowed in his 12 th Grade graduating class to have 50% more time for tests and had a reader ask him the questions in a private room with the ability to ask the reader the question a second time if he did not understand it the first time. It was wonderful that the system understood his issues and gave a framework to overcome them. 40 years ago teachers would have said he was backwards and put him in the back of the class to rot !

    We went to an Open House at Quest in the spring of 2007, the buildings still under constuction, they put several want to be students in the unfinished squash courts and split them into 2 teams ( about 8 kids per team ) each having a 20 foot steel, 1 inch diameter re-bar. Then they told the kids to pull it from the ground to full arms extended above their heads ” EVENLY in a single motion without bending the bar !”
    If you have not tried it—don’t its practically impossible.

    But the professors, slash known as tutors were studying each kid ( potential student ) very carefully–who just gave up , who wanted to have the kids spread equally alog the re-bar, who thought outside of the box ? They were watching !! Looking for the kids that questioned everthing.

    Quest students have been taught to question everything–its whats makes them VERY SPACIAL.

    The 3.5 week block programme is amazing, ( only one in Canada at the time of writing, but makes ultimate common sense ) the students
    stay engaged and hate to move on. The less than 20 kids per class has ALL of them participating, no one gets to hide or sleep at the back with a hangover.

    The setting in snow covered mountains in the winter and lush greenery in the summer is heavenly, what better environment could you possibly wish for ,makes you want to learn more about nature and every other subject. If you ski or mountain bike or like to just sit on your balcony and read, their is no better setting.

    My son Andrew received the Rick Hansen Trophy from Collingwood high school for Leadership. Quest has built on his Leadership qualities and has promoted them. He will graduate with incredibly positive memories, which will last a lifetime, of his 4 years at Quest. Yes its a little expensive, but its worth every penny and more.

    David Strangway as head of UBC did not know his 35,000 students, he dreamed of a University where class size was under 20 and a 3.5 week block programme to learn a subjects thoroughly. Martin Luther King achieved his dream, David Strangway has achieved his dream also.
    How wonderful is that !

    Philip Langridge.

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