I went back to the future this month.
I am back at Conestoga College, 35 years after I first attended classes there.
Last time, I was there as a student – and graduated with honours from the Journalism-Print program. Found a job and made a 30-year career at newspapers.
This time, I am an instructor. I’m teaching “citizen journalism” for online presentations. Both were unknown when I was learning how to stitch words together like a newspaper reporter.
I feel more than a twinge of nostalgia as I walk the halls as a journalism professor. It’s a long way from the farm where I grew up near Hamilton, Ontario. I realize I have far less hair now than I did in the 1980s.
Nostalgia in the halls
The Doon Campus building in Kitchener is where it always was, along Highway 401. It’s now about twice as large as when I attended classes, after multiple additions to the buildings since I graduated.
On-campus parking enforcement remains as enthusiastic as I remembered from 1984. Back then, I remember buying paper parking passes and putting them on the dashboard of my two-door 1977 Pontiac LeMans gas-guzzling car.
Today, I pay for parking using an app on my Blackberry. Tap, Tap, Tap to process a credit card payment. It must be working since I’ve not yet found a metal clamp from parking services on the front wheel of my utilitarian 2010 Ford Focus.
There’s now an on-campus Tim Hortons coffee shop just inside Door 3. Across the hallway is a student life centre. And just down the hall is a beautiful, extensive library with big windows and glassed-in study rooms – but few books on the shelves.
And now after working 30 years as a newspaper journalist, my brain starts asking questions. Comparing today to yesterday’s so long ago.
All the students! Far more than I ever remember. Thousands of students. I’d guess there are double – maybe triple – the students now at Doon than I ever remembered before.
Stepping back inside Conestoga also reminded me how things changed from the Ontario of my youth.
I don’t remember anyone who didn’t look or talk more or less like me or talk like me when I arrived at Conestoga in 1984 and walked the concrete-block walls.
Today, a third of Conestoga’s 18,000 full-time students are from outside Canada. Most are from India and Nigeria this semester.
More than three-quarters of my class are international students. It’s a blast.
I’m learning international students are likely planning to stay in Canada, as part of a national immigration effort that started about five years ago. Students must complete two years of studies here – at three times tuition for Canadians. That earns them a work permit to stay and practise skills they’ve learned and, eventually, the preferred path when applying for landed immigrant status.
Staying in Canada
In several seminars for new teachers, the situation is described as a win-win-win.
A win for Conestoga, because there’s a decline in Canadian students applying for classes as the Canadian birthrate declines. A win for international students – most of them from middle-class families – are eager for a respected Canadian education – with the bonus of potential citizenship in a safe, stable country. A win for a country that needs more educated, enthusiastic young people to keep the economy growing.
At the same time as international students are filling Conestoga, there’s a widespread effort to encourage enrolment from young people in Canada’s Indigenous communities. It’s part of a national effort to begin mending Canada’s ugly history of racism toward First Nations communities. One of many steps toward reconciliation.
And there’s also an overriding effort to assist all students to succeed — with mental health counselling a phone call away and assistance for students with learning disabilities.
All part-time teachers at Conestoga must attend five, three-hour training sessions to learn how to support and engage with students. I understand something like half of the students at Conestoga have learning disabilities, diagnosed or not. I don’t remember hearing anything remotely like this when I was a student.
Walking the same halls I walked as a journalism student more than three decades ago, prompts me to pause.
I think about what’s changed. And a few things that haven’t.
And I still wish I had more hair.
This blog post is adapted from a speech presented at Cambridge Toastmasters, Jan. 19, 2019.
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