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Students Aniqah Iqram, left, and Barrah Faysal are doing research together with youth leaders in Scarborough.J.P. MOCZULSKI for the globe and mail

By someone's clever design, the picture of the first graduating class from the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus looks out at the picture of the last graduating class in the university's student centre. Four years after Scarborough opened, the women had flippy bobs, the men wore thick-framed glasses and there were 100 graduates.

Fifty years later, the campus has grown to 10,000 full-time undergraduate students, a measure of Scarborough's evolution from a sparsely populated suburban neighbourhood, industrial and bucolic in equal measure, to one of the key magnets for new immigrants to Canada. At its half-century mark, the campus is in a new wave of expansion with a master plan that projects decades and tens of thousands of students into the future.

Yet, at the same time, some values have not changed: The Scarborough campus was designed to draw students from the prospering working and middle classes of east Toronto, for whom sending their children to postsecondary education was a sign of how far they had come and how much further they hoped their children would go. The immigrants that are now settling in the GTA share those dreams.

U of T is well aware of the demographic trends. Several years ago, it decided that undergraduate expansion would happen primarily at its West (Mississauga) and East (Scarborough) campuses, as they are known in the university's shorthand, as St. George still holds the purse strings and hosts the research heft.

Scarborough, however, shows how an academic institution can stay close to the ground. It has found its identity in listening to, rather than leading, the community around it. The question for the university as a whole is how to take what Scarborough does well – connected experiential learning and co-op programs – and bring it to the globally oriented Ivory Tower downtown.

"The community outreach in Scarborough is a model," said U of T president Meric Gertler.

"It's something I've been trying to give greater prominence to when I talk about the city and university relationship. I think Scarborough and Mississauga have been far more successful in engaging their neighbours than St. George campus has been," said Dr. Gertler, a geographer and urbanist.

"The imperial centre has always learnt from the colonies," said Bruce Kidd, who, since this spring has served as interim principal after Dr. Gertler asked him to step in as a favour, following the departure of Franco Vaccarino for the presidency of the University of Guelph. "I think now he's done me the favour," Dr. Kidd said.

Dr. Kidd, a former Olympian with a decades-long career at U of T, is visibly moved when he talks about seeing and meeting the parents of this year's graduating class. "There are many ways to extend a welcome and offering an education is one of them."

Most students at Scarborough come from the nearby region, an area where City of Toronto statistics show that more residents are visible minorities; part-time jobs are much easier to come by than full-time employment; and single-parent families are more prevalent.

The school has woven itself into this neighbourhood, not by geographical accident, but by design. It had experiential learning courses before the word became academically trendy and those courses are designed in response to projects identified by residents.

"The key word here is reciprocity," said Ahmed Allahwala, who teaches a case-study course on urban communities and neighbourhoods and is the associate chair of the City Studies program. "We don't see the residents as in a position of need but as co-researchers and as partners in the creation of knowledge."

For the past three years, the two dozen or so students in one of Dr. Allahwala's third-year seminar has been mapping different aspects of the youth experience in the Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park community, part of a university-wide partnership with the East Scarborough Storefront community organization. This year, the class will finalize an 80-page application for a "youth-friendly" provincial designation, a key step toward unlocking resources, but also in identifying and encouraging young volunteers to step up and advocate for themselves.

The class itself is held in a satellite office of the Storefront that also hosts free family Saturday breakfasts and prep classes for citizenship tests. On a bulletin board, someone has posted an article from the local Mirror newspaper about the stigma carried by the "priority neighbourhood" designation and the name change to neighbourhood improvement areas.

For some students, the course has been a revelation. "It's like peeling a fruit. When you are a tourist in a place, you don't see the poverty or the problems. Here you are looking inside," said Warren Mei.

"It's made me aware of youth at risk here, of other problems I didn't know about," said Aniqah Iqram, who lives about half hour away and hopes to work with the city after she graduates.

Dr. Allahwala's class is only one of many that are community-based. A first-year course takes Scarborough's ethnic diversity as its main subject; a new international food studies project, Culinaria, will look at how ethnic histories are adapted and reflected by local chefs, and a health studies project led by professor Michelle Pannor Silver taught students research methods by working with seniors in assisted-living homes nearby. Last year, poet and professor Daniel Tysdal worked with a dozen local writers not enrolled at the campus for a community poetry seminar.

The university has been open to learning from the neighbourhood, advocates say. "We try to minimize the power dynamics that are present just because of the size of the institution. We work on making residents in this community equal players in these initiatives," said Ewa Cerda-Llanos, the manager of community-university initiatives at the Storefront.

Tensions in the town and gown relationship do exist. Unlicensed rooming houses that rent furnished rooms to students for $400 to $500 a month were part of the debate in this fall's election for Ward 44 councillor.

On transportation, the community and the university are in the same bind. There isn't enough of it. In 2010, students voted in favour of a levy toward the just-opened and spectacular aquatic and athletic centre for the 2015 Pan Am Games. That commitment was connected to plans for Transit City and the Scarborough LRT, its lines projected to loop around the expanded North campus. It was a fool's bet: The LRT was cancelled by Rob Ford.

Dr. Kidd said the administration will try to get the project reinstated; if York University can get a subway, he suggested, then surely Scarborough can get an LRT.

Even if it eventually grows as large as York – which has approximately four times the undergrad population – Scarborough is unlikely to make a bid for freedom. Two years ago, it was given the keys to the second car in the family when a campus council was established that can make some academic and financial decisions. Now, when Scarborough wants to put in new parking spots, or food vendors or to spend up to $3-million on capital projects, it no longer has to phone home.

Dr. Gertler and the Scarborough administration agree that independence has limits."Clearly, they are on an evolutionary trajectory of becoming more autonomous over time," he said, "but the advantages of remaining connected for Scarborough – and for St. George – are so clear I don't see them separating."

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