Selkirk College president Angus Graeme. Photo: File photo

COLUMN: Making the path while walking

Selkirk College president Angus Graeme writes about a full year of academics during the pandemic

by Angus Graeme

“Traveller, there is no path; The path is made by walking.” – Antonio Machado.

In post-secondary education circles, spring is the season of celebration and powerful beginnings. A time in most of our Selkirk College programs where we honour the remarkable accomplishments of students as they reach graduation. This is the second year where spring convocation will take place on screen rather than on stage. What won’t be different will be that educators will take the usual private and public moments to feel joy and excitement for their students. Some will feel a tinge of sadness at the perennial saying of goodbyes, many will also draw a deep breath and exhale with a mix of fatigue and gratitude to be finished what has been a very challenging year.

This spring marks the one-year anniversary of a dramatic alteration to our operations in response to the pandemic, and the further shift brought by subsequent and critically important social justice, political and humanitarian change that continues to unfold across the world. It has been a year of living differently, educating differently, working together differently and learning differently. The year has been exhausting, yet in so many ways truly inspiring. The broader Selkirk College community — students, employees and our many community supporters — has come together, coped, adapted, endured and succeeded. It has been a year where, as Machado says, we have created our path by walking forward.

In our annual engagement survey this year, students shared that they appreciated the quality and accessibility of the learning experiences they received. But as could be expected, learners struggled with mental health challenges, balancing life outside of school, new teaching methods, making connection with their teachers and each other, and feeling a sense of belonging with the institution. Educators and staff responded and focused on providing quality learning experiences, removing additional barriers, re-inventing methods of peer connection, and helping students with feelings of isolation, heightened anxiety and loss of hope in the face of so much uncertainty. Everyone managed to do this while following all public health measures, safety protocols, and quarantine and isolation rules. Keeping students and colleagues safe became the shared operational underscore.

Education is synonymous with hope, the two originate from the same common root. That root connects to students’ dreams, ideas, convictions and ways of being that all come together in an educational setting. By design, education must be accessible and inclusive to keep the root intact. Connection in learning is so important. Education prepares students for the current while equipping them to shape a remarkable future — one that right now is difficult to predict. I have nothing but admiration and deep gratitude for the way students — young and not as young — have been so adaptable, poised and resilient this past year. Similarly, the hundreds of employees at Selkirk College are to be commended for the stamina and ingenuity in making it all come together. Students stayed with their dreams and ideas, and they stuck with us. We met them where they were at, and in the process learned new ways to teach and to support students to be successful. It has kept us all hopeful and inspired.

The futurist and social theorist Gerd Leonhard says that the contemporary emphasis in education for preparing students for careers in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math — or STEAM — has been important. But he suggests that education must now re-double its efforts to provide students with an education and for a myriad of careers that require an emphasis in HECI: Humanity, Ethics, Compassion and Imagination. We have seen firsthand how a pandemic has illuminated the need for these skills in all areas of civil life.

It is now vital for colleges and universities to ramp up the development of HECI competencies in every area of study and skill development. We need these competencies to face and solve the many challenges that will persist long after the pandemic: deepening poverty and inequity, the climate crisis and its impacts, an economic and societal recovery that needs to be inclusive, the achievement of lasting reconciliation, and a just, civil society to name but a few. Students want greater agency and confidence to effect change in these and many other areas. They want to create the path by walking. We need more than ever to support them.

I have always loved the ancient axiom that no journey is long when in good company. As a citizen, I am excited to lace up and walk the path of recovery and renewal with such good company. It really will be made by walking together.

Nelson Star