Wider Horizons

They come to Lethbridge from around the globe, intelligent, industrious, aspiring. Many speak more than one language,college vehicles a testament to their intuitive ability to learn. They want and need to add English to their repertoire.

Lethbridge College’s Youth In Transition (YIT) program, funded by provincial and federal governments, is helping immigrants aged 16 to 24 bolster their written English skills. The program is flourishing, starting with an initial 12 students and climbing steadily since.

Students make the trip to Lethbridge College while still in high school, splitting their time equally between the two. It takes seven to 10 years, says YIT co-ordinator Sue Oguchi, for these students to become proficient enough in English to be successful at the post-secondary level. The goal of the program is to help students gain that proficiency, and then keep them on as full-program learners.

“The wonderful thing about Canada – and it is not universal – is you can enter postsecondary education without a high school diploma,” says Oguchi. “You can acquire prerequisites specific to the career you want, then enter that program. That’s important to young immigrants. “Their age makes them unique in that they are gifted verbally, so they speak English fairly well, but have a lag in their written abilities.

YIT is a multifaceted approach in which we can identify a specific group and give them the different supports they need. I haven’t met one yet who didn’t have a goal of achieving higher education.”

Adult learners, too, are finding their English voices at Lethbridge College. Adult ESL co-ordinator Deanne Wirzba notes some are international students who come specifically to learn English before heading home. Others require English to become Canadian citizens.

Most of those in the latter group are educated people with degrees earned in their home countries. Lethbridge College allows them to audit classes while they are in the ESL program, and take exams, sometimes with stunning results.

“One young woman from China went into the Business Administration program and wound up best in the class,” says Wirzba. There are some amazing and unexpected benefits that arise when learners from several countries share a classroom.

“Our students say the best part of the experience is meeting people from other countries,” says Wirzba, an immigrant herself, if even from North Dakota. “A Japanese person will express how they never expected to ever meet anyone from Sudan, but it happens here.”

Once they enter a full-time college program, they blend into classrooms full of young

Canadians who, says Wirzba, have to learn it’s not “us” and “them” but “we.”

ESL students get a strong dose of Canadian – and southern Albertan – culture, with trips to Waterton and other ethnic sites and events. Interestingly, though, a new experience last summer proved most instructional: a day with the Lethbridge Regional Police Service recruits who train on campus in uniform each summer.

“For many of our students, experience with police in their own counties is not pleasant,” says Wirzba. “For four hours they served as guinea pigs for the recruits who were learning how to interview. They told us it was the best experience they’d had.”

Not all is sweetness, Wirzba admits, and Flames-Oilers-type debates can get out of hand.

“I once stopped a fight between an Afghani and a Sudanese arguing the merits of the Brazilian soccer team. It wasn’t about ethnicity; it was about personalities.” How typically Canadian.

The right environment

Terry Kowalchuk will take them where he finds them: West Coast boat shows, Manitoba campgrounds, gas stops in northern Alberta; wherever he can spread the word to students about Lethbridge College’s School of Environmental Sciences.

As the school’s program chair, Kowalchuk knows he has an environmental science product to sell, and he understands there can be a disconnection between product and market. So, he and the rest of the school’s faculty have completed a year of stalking potential students in their natural habitats.

“It’s an opportunistic strategy,” says Kowalchuk. “We recognize our prospects have certain qualities: they enjoy outdoor activities. They enjoy the kinds of things that a career in environmental science entails. So we focus our efforts in the places they show up. If we can talk to them at an early age, say in Grade 8, we can get them to set their sights on Lethbridge College. We’re merely getting the word out to our target market.”

In the first year of this new marketing strategy, Environmental Science faculty have come into contact with some 100,000 potential students. They’ve hit boat-and-sport shows in Abbotsford, B.C., attended numerous provincial parks days, shown up at Junior Forest Wardens activities, and hit farm and ranch shows from Edmonton to Winnipeg.

The hunting has been good: enrolment is rising. And, because many of the contacts are four years away from high school graduation, the real gains may not be realized for a while. Sometimes, the ammunition is a $40 decal on a college vehicle.

“If Guy L’Heureux (instructor) stops for gas in northern Alberta, and a young person who’s interested in environmental science sees the truck, they might start asking him questions,” says Kowalchuk. “Now they know someone who teaches in the program; they’ve made a connection. We’re also talking to parents and grandparents, giving them as much contact information as we can. It’s that face-to-face conversation and a handshake that does the best job. In the past, we relied on word-of-mouth awareness; we still do, but you have to be out there, as well. People gain a sense of confidence and start to feel that Lethbridge College is the right place for them to be.”

Lethbridge College might be the right place to be, but it’s not the only place: other schools teach environmental science and are just as eager to land young prospects. Kowalchuk doesn’t, however, consider them competition. He knows the numbers he can’t take in will go elsewhere, just as overflows at other colleges will come his way.

Jobs in the environmental science field continue to grow, with more opportunities that ever before. Yet, students are often guided straight to university. By taking the college route, they can gain valuable practical experience and hands-on learning before “laddering” their diploma into a university degree. Environmental science is also fighting sociology to a certain extent. Increased urbanization of the Canadian population means young people have fewer encounters with the outdoors.

So, Kowalchuk is also promoting his school to employers, making the message positive and deepening his prospect pool. It’s not only the young who are enticed by the bait; older learners with university degrees are also entering the program.

“We recruit one student at a time, and everyone is different,” says Kowalchuk. “But we find we don’t have to sell too hard. Once they’ve had a tour of the college, no one’s ever gone somewhere else.”

Wider Horizons
Lethbridge College
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