NLC board chair looks back, looks ahead and sees good things for adult ed. in the north

Dan Vandermeulen
Dan Vandermeulen

Joe McWilliams
It’s not every day you get to interview the chairman of the board in a pickup truck. But this is northern Alberta, and for Dan Vandermeulen of Northern Lakes College, that’s what was convenient on a day he was “puttering around” at his Joussard property. He’s been doing quite a lot of that lately, but is still very involved with the college, from the board governance side of things.

Vandermeulen was of course the president of the NLC for many years. After retirement he headed north for a spell, running a college in Nunavut (among other roles); now he’s back and two years into his term as chairperson of the board of governors of NLC.

“Nunavut Arctic College in many ways is very similar to NLC,” he says, “Other than that they are a stage earlier than we are. They’re just getting into distance learning – bandwidth up there is horrendously expensive.”

Back here ‘down south,’ NLC continues to forge ahead with its primarily ‘online’ method of delivering programs. The institution, from back in its AVC days, was a pioneer in using technology to tie students and instructors together from remote locations across the north of the province. Now it’s doing things on an even bigger stage, such as delivering crane operator training from one end of Alberta to the other. And, Vandermeulen points out, when it comes to some online programs, provincial borders don’t mean much.

“Water and wastewater management,” he says. “It’s going national now.”

Although the programs offered by the college have expanded and changed a lot in the years, and the delivery methods refined, Vandermeulen says the basic vision hasn’t. That, more or less, is to provide opportunities for adult education in communities.

That was the message that came from a group back in the late 1960s, called the Isolated Communities Board, chaired by William Beaver.

“Most of the adult population (of these isolated communities) had never had a chance to complete,” Vandermeulen says. “They didn’t have high schools to drop out of!”

In essence, Vandermeulen says, the Community Education Committees, “called the college into existence.”

In those early days, it was mainly in the form of adult academic upgrading, taught by graduates of the ‘Ed Tech’ program – two of whose notable early members were Archie Cunningham and Pearl Calahasen. Classes met in whatever facilities the communities managed to pull together, and so it went.

“It was more community-based than any other college in Canada,” Vandermeulen says. “And our vision has built on that (and) never diverged significantly – that is to bring adult education to the communities.”

The programs delivered have – as noted – evolved significantly, from basic adult ed., to social work programs, nursing programs, Bachelor of Education programs, business programs, university transfer programs (among many others) and now trades.

This stuff is all making a difference in communities. Vandermeulen gives as examples the school in Peerless Lake, where he says, “a significant portion of the staff are trained by us,” and High Level hospital, where “a significant part of the nursing staff are trained through our programs.”

It’s fairly obvious that when it comes to retention of employees, having local people trained locally can be quite an advantage.

What else is on the chairman’s mind these days is the enticing possibility of a partnership with Athabasca University. NLC has the distance ed. know-how and the connections in the north. AU has all sorts of degree programs Vandermeulen thinks northern people might take advantage of if they didn’t have to leave home to do it.

Engineering for example: “If we could help northerners get into it, that would be great.”

So are the two institutions talking about it?

“Oh yeah,” says Vandermeulen, adding, “We’re not running into a lot of resistance. It’s a market niche that we can give them entry to, and it gives us that much more reach.”

However, such a collaboration would be up to the minister to approve. Vandermeulen likes the prospects, because, he says, it would not take students away from other institutions.

“We’re talking about people that wouldn’t go to a traditional university,” he says.

Some of those people might come from Joussard, where this interview takes place. A few metres away is the brand-new Joussard School, which is preparing another crop of students, many of whom might not be able to – in Vandermeulen’s words – “disrupt their lives, pack up and move to a campus.” If not, Northern Lakes College might have the solution for them.

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