Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


University students begin to deliver community-based literacy programming through "Frontier College: Students for Literacy" chapters

Students for Literacy

In 1989, two McGill graduate students took it upon themselves to pioneer a student-run literacy program on campus. They recruited and trained four fellow students as literacy tutors and matched them with learners in the Montreal community. They held their meetings in the school cafeteria and were given a small start-up budget from the McGill student society. In 1991, Frontier College, Canada’s oldest literacy organization, caught wind of their efforts. They asked themselves this question:

“If university and college students want to get involved in social issues, to volunteer their time to make things happen, and to use their skills and knowledge to improve the world, then why don’t we help them to do just that?” (Miller, 1993).

Frontier College asked the McGill program coordinator, Stephanie Miller, to join their organization and spread this idea of student literacy programs to universities and colleges across Canada. Miller agreed to join their forces in September 1991, right after she finished up her graduate degree.

However, in the spring of 1991, Frontier College’s funding for the project fell through and they informed Miller that, unfortunately, she would not be able to work for them come the fall. Unwilling to let a “little thing” like funding get in the way of this national movement, Miller volunteered to spend the summer knocking on the doors of corporations in Montreal and Toronto to raise funds for this initiative.  By the end of the summer, she had raised a million dollars and Frontier College: Students for Literacy was founded.

‘Students for Literacy’ takes off…

A few years later, under Frontier College’s guidance, the McGill program moved to its own office in the Student Union building and began to involve more than 100 learners in the Montreal community. The volunteers started working with women at Shawbridge Youth Detention Centre, adults with mental and physical disabilities, youth at risk in high-school drop-out centres, and other local adults who needed help with their reading and writing. The program soon had so many learners that the organizational team had to call upon students from Concordia University to help them out. Frontier College began to approach students across the country to get involved, and campus by campus, the program grew.

Today, Frontier College: Students for Literacy involves over 35 chapters and over a thousand tutors on campuses across the country. Each chapter, with the constant support of Frontier College, recruits their own students to work as literacy tutors in their respective communities. Each chapter researches their community and partners with existing literacy groups to ensure that all literacy needs are being met without an overlap of services. Trainers from Frontier College then arrive on campus to deliver an initial program management training for the student “Organization Team” (OT), and then return a few times each year to train the recruited tutors. As members of the OT graduate, other students step up to fill their places. This is a movement that touches all who are involved…

A far-reaching vision

Frontier College’s vision goes beyond the simple goal of training students to deliver literacy education in their communities. As the Frontier College: Students for Literacy Program Set-up and Management Manual reads, this is the vision:

Frontier College will set up student-run literacy programs on university and college campuses across Canada. By doing so, literacy access will increase, schools and their surrounding communities will learn to cooperate, a new generation of graduates will look at the world with new eyes, and most importantly, new readers will acquire the literacy tools they need in order to take control of their own lives (Miller, 1993). 

Students: the spirit of the movement

Although Frontier College: Students for Literacy began officially in 1991, the spirit behind this movement is a very familiar one for the College. Alfred Fitzpatrick, the founder of Frontier College, emphasized the importance of delivering education to people wherever they were from as early as 1920: “Wherever and whenever people have occasion to gather, there is the time, place and means of their education” (1920). In the bush and lumber camps of Nova Scotia, Fitzpatrick saw a need to provide opportunities for workers to gather together to read, discuss ideas, to learn literacy skills and to feel a sense of community. He bought some circus tents and painted the words, “All Welcome” on them. Then he decided to recruit young, idealistic university students and challenge them to be teachers at these Reading Tents. As they did (and are still doing) 70 years later when asked to join the Students for Literacy movement, the students accepted the challenge, and the Labourer-Teacher model was born.

Programs, Programs. Programs!

Each year, more Students for Literacy chapters are pioneered by students across the country. Their programs are as varied as their communities, as the following examples illustrate. In Vancouver, the Simon Fraser and UBC chapters team up to run a pre-employment program for aboriginal youth and work with African mothers and their children on reading and numeracy skills. In Saskatoon, students run fun literacy activities at a local detention centre, and involve at-risk youth in the creation of their very own weekly radio show for a community radio station. In Toronto, the U of T and Ryerson chapters work closely to deliver literacy programs for Somali students, Native women, and inner-city youth. In PEI, students put up a reading tent in a local mall each week, and in St. John, Newfoundland, Memorial students run “Homework Haven” programs to assist youth with school-based learning at seven local community centres across the city ( And this is just the beginning. Clearly, university and college students from all reaches of Canada are taking the challenge seriously and working hard each year to make a real difference in their communities.

A final note…

Frontier College: Students for Literacy is a national movement which involves hundreds of students, learners, and community groups across Canada. It is a program that continues to grow each year owing in large part to the incredible number of volunteers who sustain it. As long as there are Canadians who need help with their reading, writing, numeracy and other basic skills, Frontier College: Students for Literacy will continue to deliver programs that reach a wide range of people across the country. To learn more about Frontier College, a local chapter of Frontier College: Students for Literacy, or its many programs, visit their website at


Fitzpatrick, Alfred. University in Overalls. Frontier College Press: Toronto. 1920.

Miller, Stephanie S. Frontier College: Students for Literacy Program Set-up and Management Manual. Frontier College Press: Toronto. 1993.

Morrison, James H. Camps and Classrooms: A Pictorial History of Frontier College. Frontier College Press: Toronto. 1989.

Written by Shannon Wall, (OISE/UT), who founded the first Frontier College: Students for Literacy at Bishop’s chapter in Lennoxville, Quebec in 1994. 

November 2001

Citation: Wall, Shannon (2001). 1991: University students begin to deliver community-based literacy programming through "Frontier College: Students for Literacy" chapters. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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