The East Kootenay’s post-secondary institution is marking an important milestone next week.
College of the Rockies is inviting all students, alumni, community partners and current and former employees to help celebrate its 40th anniversary at an event set for Tuesday, Feb. 2, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
The event is billed as “a wonderful chance to reconnect with old friends and to learn what the future holds for the College’s next chapter.”
The College with it’s seven regional campuses, has come a long ways since James Patterson, a miner from Kimberley and member of the local school board, first approached the provincial government in Victoria, along with other interested parties, and initiated the process of establishing a vocational school in the East Kootenay.
East Kootenay Community College was established on May 8, 1975 with an edict from the government that the main campus be constructed in Cranbrook. It was to offer vocational, technical and academic courses and Dr. Gary Dickinson became its first Principal in June of that year.
The first classes took place on October 6, 1975 and the number of registered students that first year was 351 in Cranbrook, 64 in Kimberley, 52 in Fernie, 39 in Golden and 37 in Invermere. From 1975 to 1982, while a new facility was being constructed, courses were delivered in various venues in Cranbrook (the college operated out of 17 different locations in Cranbrook) and in high school classrooms in the other communities during the evening.
Since then, the College has come to serve a regional population of more than 82,000 people and 45,000 square kilometre area. Since the 130,000 square-foot Cranbrook campus opened in 1982, it has grown with additions and renovations, expansions. The College has developed partnerships with the Ktunaxa First Nations and other universities, developed a glowing reputation for its international students, become the first step in a post-secondary career for local young people, and become a degree-granting institution in its own right.
Since Dickinson’s tenure as “principal” (1975-77), six others have served as the College’s President. Mr. David Walls, who took over the helm in 2013, spoke to the Townsman about the College’s place in the communities of the region, and its way forward into the future.
It’s important the community recognizes the College’s place in the community — a part of the community, not apart from the community.
“Everyone recognizes that we’re an important presence in the community, and they hear about things that we’re doing, but don’t always feel as well connected to us as they would like to,” Walls said.
“We’re working on developing a stronger college brand and a stronger presence. For part of our 40th anniversary, we’ll actually be rolling out a new branding strategy and a new way forward.”
A key aspect of the College’s presence is the fact that local young people can begin their post-secondary careers at home, including starting university degrees.
“We’ve got partnerships in place with the University of Victoria, for example, and the University of Lethbridge, where they can begin their degree here, and actually enroll at those universities the same time they enroll with us,” Walls said. And they’re taking university level courses, and the credits they get are then transferable direct to those universities. Once they’ve completed 24 credits with us, they get guaranteed admission and take those 24 credits, or more, with them.
“So really, it’s much more affordable for local students to do that here. If they’re at home they’re not paying for Vancouver or Victoria kinds of accommodations. Plus, tuition fees are cheaper and class sizes are smaller.
Walls said that students’ chances of success are shown to be greater “when they actually start out their university careers here.
“So we really present a good opportunity for young people to begin a post-secondary career.
“We’re hoping as we move forward that we can encourage more students to take that opportunity.”
Trades training is as important as ever for the College. But over the years the entire concept of college education has grown as well, including at COTR.
“That’s maybe the old view of a college, as opposed to a university,” Walls said. “It used to be that a college focuses on trades training, and a university focuses more on academic programing.
“But really, that boundary has blurred. Trades are still important for us. We have about 600 students who come to us every year that take a variety of trades, either as apprentices or to take a certificate program to get into a trade. But they’re really only about 20 per cent of the story of what the College is about.
“I think that’s part of the lack of understanding. To some extent we get thought of as the trade college, but we are so much more than that. The important thing we’re going to emphasize moving forward is that the concept of college education has definitely changed.”
Part of the ongoing change at COTR is an increasing presence of international students. In fact, COTR has received accolades for its work with students from other countries, having been voted two years in a row as being number one for international student satisfaction. “To put that in context there were about 160 colleges and universities who took part in the study around the world,” Walls said.
“We have students from about 35 different countries, who come and live in the community. Last year we were about 11 per cent international students and we have targets to move up to about 15 per cent of our student population.”
This growing global approach works both ways.
“We’re trying to present different opportunities, as well, for our (domestic) students to go abroad, and incorporate some international experience as part of their training.”
COTR also works internationally on a college to college level.
“We also participate in international projects overseas. We do a lot of development work through government or private corporations where we help other colleges (in Kenya), where we help raise their standards of post-secondary education.”
Walls was asked about the future; what, for example, the College will look like in 20 years.
“Last year, we served more than 3,000 students who were enrolled at our seven campuses,” he said. “What I see in the future is some steady growth on that, driven by both increases in domestic and international students. We’re also getting more involved in really working with the community — we want our students when they’re here to have an experiential learning piece as part of their program where they’ll spend some time getting to know how industry operates and how business operates within our community. That’s built into their learning, so there’s more than just the classroom side as well.
“We really want to extend that presence where we’re much more integrated with the community. That’s part of our vision moving forward — just to be a growing, vibrant institution as we march forward.”