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How Colleges Can Be a Stepping Stone to a Better Life

Colleges can adapt to a diversity of learners, build spaces for them and, in turn, help define the future of not only the institution but the community at large.
Colleges can adapt to a diversity of learners, build spaces for them and, in turn, help define the future of not only the institution but the community at large.

Colleges and universities are a major point in students’ lives, often marking the time when people step out on their own.

For immigrants and underrepresented communities, it can be even more of a potentially life-changing opportunity.    

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What do you consider the key responsibilities of a college designed to serve the community?

Paul Toupin (PT): Colleges are instruments that serve a community’s socio-economic (and cultural) development. If a community increases its capabilities via the services rendered by its college, then it thrives, and its social, economic and cultural dimensions adapt because the institution provides for its three principal constituents.

The first one is the individuals who want to acquire the skills the community needs; the second is organizations or employers who need to hire skilled talent to take their company to the next level; and the last is the funders, who are usually governments but can also be other foundations or investors, who identified a need.

Given that BIPOC and Francophone minority communities are often overlooked by more mainstream society, colleges can act as catalysts for developing the talents required by those communities, who create or support businesses in those communities and, in turn, stimulate the development of circular economies within those communities.  

For example, in First Nations communities, the ability to develop local labor to build much-needed housing ensures wages provided to Indigenous youth working on local construction projects are recycled in the community, thus benefiting local grocers, hardware supply companies and other businesses that service the housing sector within those communities. 

In Francophone communities, colleges train Francophone healthcare workers who work in a hospital designated to serve the Francophone community. Those Francophone employees will acquire contracted services from third-party organizations who must hire other Francophones to properly serve the hospital. 

These are but two examples of how colleges build the capacities of individuals who, in turn, define the future of the institutions and organizations that build a community. They not only help these diverse communities survive but thrive and evolve during changing times. 

Colleges and institutions that support minority communities must ensure their communities benefit from technological advances afforded to communities at large. For instance, if an Anglophone hospital is the only institution to acquire a new diagnostic technology, then it will be the only healthcare facility to provide that degree of diagnostic services to patients. The Francophone population base will not be as well served if it doesn’t have the ability to add those services at its hospital, which can reduce their quality of care if they prefer to be treated in their mother tongue because they better understand what is being done for them. 

Similarly, if a First Nation has been reliant on diesel fuel as an energy supply, despite the inherent risks, it is easier to reduce those risks if the same home builders learn how to integrate geothermal, solar and other efficient energy practices in new and renovated community housing stock. 

But none of these practices can be applied unless the college listens to the community’s needs and acts as a willing proponent of change alongside community partners. 

Evo: For La Cite in particular, what does it take to create pathways to the labor market for audiences that are typically underserved like Francophone and Indigenous communities?

PT: Colleges must be active players in growing and showcasing the culture, not just an instrument in the process.

In light of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and more recently by the tragic death of George Floyd, there is a pressing need for underserved communities to be part of the whole conversation. Often, underserved communities aren’t considered in larger societal dialogues unless a major incident occurs, and everyone takes notice. For instance, in Ottawa, the 1999 Montfort Crisis would have created a large gap in health services for Francophones in Eastern Ontario, so the community mobilized and eventually ensured the need for talent to provide first-rate health services in French. Events were even hosted at the college to mobilize the community. Eventually, our college played a key role in developing training programs for that institution and others in the region that benefited from hiring graduates trained at our institution. 

We see similar incidents for HBCUs in the United States. However, for Indigenous people in Canada, we have yet to see a significant number of community-based First Nation or Inuit postsecondary training institutions because, under section 91(24) of the Constitution Act of 1867, the federal government has exclusive legislative authority for “Indians, and Lands reserved for the Indians.” This responsibility, however, often overlaps with that of provinces, whose authority extends to areas such as education. Aside from postsecondary institutions such as the Nicola Valley Institute of Technology and First Nation University of Canada, most Canadian postsecondary institutions make various attempts to be more inclusive and rrelevant to Indigenous populations, but I believe that such progress will be slow unless provinces work with the federal government to replicate what was done in New Zealand. In 1984, Rongo Wetere (now an Ottawa resident) led a group of Maori leaders in convincing the New Zealand government to support the Maori people by creating Te Wananga O Aotearoa. With over 80 sites across Maori territory, it has become the second-largest education provider in New Zealand and has had a generational impact on increasing the Maori people’s socio-economic and cultural presence.  

When schools like Collège La Cité in Ottawa and Te Wananga O Aotearoa build their student’s capacity and confidence, their students develop their own voice and become part of the economic engine that keeps our societies whole. When you remove access to an institution that reflects the values and beliefs of a community, you diminish that voice in society—even as these underserved communities continue to exist. Assimilation seldom disappears in the eyes of those affected by it, but it is often forgotten by those who have never experienced exclusion based on race. So, we as a society must accept that these sociocultural groups have a potential, and that potential creates opportunities to make our whole society stronger. 

But even a college can risk ignoring change in favor of preserving its past. At Collège La Cité, the past decade has seen the arrival of many international students and a growing number of first- and second-generation Francophone students. Even college staff now represent that new diaspora. But it has taken some time for Francophone communities to realize what new French-speaking immigrants can represent in terms of economic and cultural opportunities, as certain African and European players didn’t exist 30 years ago.

Colleges must explain to employers the opportunities created by integrating diversity into their workplaces. The unique perspective of culture-based institutions creates opportunities for organizations that want to increase their visibility in new markets. When immigrant college graduates are employed by organizations, are those employers realizing the opportunity these people bring to their organization? With Canada hoping to attract 400,000 immigrants per year, are Canadian employers realizing how integrating newcomers could promote their products and services to a growing cultural marketplace? With Indigenous youth representing over 50% of the Indigenous population, are companies realizing that if they build trust with First Nation, Inuit and Métis people through hiring, they are tapping into an emerging marketplace? Colleges need to work with the business community on strategies that increase access to these cultural communities and consequential opportunities for growth.

Colleges that have historically served minority communities have to ensure that current training programs and services are not just based on serving employers from their own sociocultural reality. Colleges that serve minority communities have every right to take great pride in their past achievements but sometimes that can be a detriment to attracting the next generation to their institution. Students want to attend an institution offering the next best thing, not just one uniquely focused on representing their cultural values. It is therefore important that colleges serving minority populations thoroughly understand employer needs within their cultural environment and beyond traditional boundaries. This approach will allow them to attract students from their targeted audience without sacrificing their desire to acquire the most relevant and advanced skills needed for available career opportunities.

By understanding labor market trends, colleges serving minority communities can position themselves favorably with creative and innovative employers to ensure their students can shine within their organization, and the organization can benefit from the unique talent and perspective brought from the diversity of college graduates. Companies that proudly represent minority communities can therefore acquire talent to ultimately compete within their cultural reality as well as the larger population. 

Evo: How can the college position itself to be an accessible pathway to a sustainable career for newly arrived immigrants?

PT: Immigration provides an amazing opportunity for colleges in the 21st century. As climate change and other disruptive global events force people to flee their countries, Canadian colleges need to be equipped to accommodate them when they arrive in Canada. That means rapidly and comprehensively recognizing their competencies and skills through seamless processes. It also means understanding their passions and career interests to match them with employment opportunities that require relevant competencies. 

We also have to match competencies with just-in-time employment opportunities. Although many matches will likely never be perfect, if colleges can assess the common competencies and gaps, they can train to those gaps with employers (not for employers because we won’t be able to keep up with emerging needs if we do so), so newcomers hit the ground running. 

Evo: What are some challenges a college can face in creating relevant and low-barrier access for such diverse communities?

PT: For our French-speaking immigrants, organizations that hold the certification criteria for professional designations or memberships can be a barrier because they don’t recognize foreign credentials. And obtaining those equivalencies can be expensive and time-consuming.

In many cases, colleges don’t have a large capacity to properly assess equivalencies in competencies for French-speaking immigrants.

We as colleges even need to improve in that regard because every day a new immigrant spends not working is a day of concern for them and their family. And for a society with a labor shortage, the inability to find talent when it is out there is a daily threat to our employers’ opportunities.

Some of these diverse communities have higher-than-average dropout rates, meaning they may not meet academic entry requirements. For instance, most First Nation communities do not have a high school. This limited access means many youths only possess grade 9-level literacy and numeracy skills. And many youths from these diverse communities don’t think that college or university is for them because their parents never attended postsecondary school.

Evo: How can schools work to overcome these obstacles?

PT: There are a few potential solutions to these issues. Working with organizations like CFIB who share employer concerns and wants with us is one. They are a good barometer for understanding the interests of a large contingency of employers, many of whom are not regulated by obligatory designations certified by professional bodies or associations.

Developing pertinent fast-track programs that target the skills required to succeed in a postsecondary or professional environment is another solution. We provide diagnostic assessments followed by targeted educational resources to help students achieve the desired literacy, numeracy and computer literacy competencies to succeed. 

A third solution is working with AI or data at a service company like SkyHive to access just-in-time regional labor data, determine individual competencies and conduct gap assessments on competencies. This analysis allows us to capture the competencies of individuals and follow and support them in their career pursuits with relevant and pertinent training that meets employers’ specific needs.

We also need to work closely with minority community audiences to demystify what college life is about and demonstrate the resources and supports available to them to address transportation, housing, financial and daycare concerns.