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.