By Joe Howell
Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. It’s been 20 years since Victoria University launched the Vic One program, in which students spend their first year at Victoria College being taught by prominent academics and public figures in small, seminar-style classrooms focused on one of eight streams. Designed to jump-start the academic journeys of exceptional new students, the program has been so successful it’s been replicated across U of T’s three campuses.
“I first heard about Vic One while on faculty at the University of Toronto Mississauga,” says Vic U president Rhonda McEwen. “It was renowned for its achievement rates and academic rigour. There is in fact a utmONE program now—and since I’ve had the honour of getting to know Vic One up close, I can say that the flattery is well-deserved.”
In 2022, about 83 per cent of Victoria College graduates who went through the Vic One program graduated with distinction or high distinction (a CPGA above of 3.2 or 3.5, respectively), compared to 74 per cent of the broader Vic population and 59 per cent of all students graduating from the Faculty of Arts & Science. These figures are not a blip, says Principal Angela Esterhammer: “Year after year, the numbers show that students who participated in Vic One are significantly more likely to excel academically than their peers.”
“Vic One grounded my undergraduate experience, connecting me to a wonderful community of like-minded peers and challenging me academically to strive for excellence,” says Catherine Brown Vic 1T0, now an associate medical officer of health. “The Stowe-Gullen stream awakened my curiosity for medicine and started my path.”
Holly Johnstone Vic 2T2 was in the program’s Gooch stream before doing her master’s at the University of Oxford. “Vic One was the perfect estuary between the smaller, more intimate classes I was used to in high school and the academic rigour of university classes,” she says.
It’s no wonder the rest of U of T—and beyond—has looked to Vic One as a model. We sat down with former Victoria University president Paul Gooch and former Victoria College principal David Cook, to hear about what inspired their creation of the program.
“It was that conviction of the importance of personal education that motivated us,” says Professor Gooch. “We wanted to ensure that in first year, at least one faculty member actually knew your name and not just your student number.”
He says that even the best students benefit from this individualized approach: “Those who do very well in high school often come from smaller schools, where they had a lot of attention. Throw them in a large classroom environment like Convocation Hall or even the Bader Theatre, and they can become highly conscious of their status and their peers—it can be an anxious time,” says Professor Gooch. “Smaller classes help with all of those issues, particularly self-esteem and perplexity about the future.”
In the early days of the program, says Professor Cook, “one of the things that surprised us a little bit was the lack of fierce competition inside the classroom. It tended to be the opposite; people were there helping each other. We were really pleased to see this spirit of collegiality.”
With so many bright, motivated pupils, how did they avoid creating a hypercompetitive atmosphere? “I think it had less to do with us and more to do with the participants,” reflects Professor Cook. “Over the years, Vic One has attracted a certain type of student: those who are going to profit from the seminars, the close contact with the professors and with their colleagues in the classroom. That may be the most important part of the Vic One experience—bringing together great individuals. Those friendships can last for life.”
Those great individuals also include the exceptional faculty, adds Professor Gooch, who by virtue of their expertise have always been given wide latitude in their instruction. Vic One’s weekly plenary series has featured high-profile speakers like Margaret Atwood, Jean Chrétien, Colm Feore, Ursula Franklin, John Polanyi and Kenneth Taylor.
Earlier this year, Vic One had its 20th birthday bash. Students and faculty past and present reunited for a variety of events, including a conversation between Vic One professors David Wright, former ambassador to NATO, and the Honourable Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“Education is really about igniting curiosity,” says Professor Gooch. “The way to do that is to have committed faculty members who love their subjects, and students who have the desire to know. I think that message has gotten out.”
Donations to Victoria College make it possible to engage professors who combine scholarly accomplishment with remarkable skills as educators. To contribute and help students Defy Gravity, visit vicu.utoronto.ca/giving.
Vic One Graduates Share Their Experiences
Holly Johnstone Vic 2T2 | Gooch stream
“Every now and then I’ll hear from an upcoming freshman at U of T who isn’t sure how they should get involved on campus. I always tell them two things: (1) apply to Victoria College and (2) join Vic One. Vic One was the perfect estuary between the smaller, more intimate classes I was used to in high school and the academic rigour of university classes. It was a safe harbour where I began exploring the big ideas that laid the groundwork for my liberal arts education. It went on to undergird the entirety of my academic career; I never got far without encountering one or more of the names that appeared on my Vic One syllabus.
Now having studied at Oxford, I can confidently say that the Vic One seminar system is on par with—if not better than—some of the best institutions in the world. The instruction was phenomenal; the subject matter was challenging; and my peers were some of the most brilliant, curious and open-minded students that I ever have met. I could not be a stronger advocate for this program!”
Fadi Amer Vic 1T9 | Gooch stream
“What a privilege to be one of the ‘originals’ of the Gooch stream of the Vic One program! Amidst all the pressures of today’s increasingly dystopian modernity, here was an open invitation to meaningfully reflect on what it means to live a good life and to embody the values of active, responsible citizenship. I recall fondly the convivial space of creative, free and critical discussion that permeated our seminars. And it is this attention to virtue and vice, to the centrality of human flourishing, that has remained with me long after vacating the lecture halls. Without a doubt, Vic One was a highlight of my time at the University of Toronto, and I am ever grateful to have been given the opportunity.”
Zinzi De Silva Vic 0T8 | Pearson stream
“Vic One definitely set the baseline and the fundamentals of what I needed to have a successful career as a public servant. The people that I met at Vic widened my views, and we had such a hugely inclusive lens from that about the plurality of ideas. That's where I think I found all my people, from Vic One. It changed my life for sure. It’s invigorating to know that so much has happened in 20 years—all the different streams and how much this program has expanded is heartwarming.”
Catherine Brown Vic 1T0 | Stowe-Gullen stream
“Vic One grounded my undergraduate experience, connecting me to a wonderful community of like-minded peers and challenging me academically to strive for excellence. The Stowe-Gullen stream awakened my curiosity for medicine and started my path toward practising public health. Communicating risk and uncertainty, framing the evidence and understanding bias are core to my day-to-day work as a medical officer of health. The mentoring from and philosophy of Vic One helped me build a growth mindset that has allowed me to thrive professionally. On a personal note, the friends I made through Vic One remain some of the most important in my life. These friendships have grown over 15+ years, and are a continued source of strength and support.”