50 years of Durham College

Photo by Dan Koehler

Montage of The Chronicle through the its publication years.

For UOIT student Jessica Nguyen, the path to where she is today wasn’t a straight one. “If it weren’t for college I wouldn’t be the [university] student I am today. It has allowed me to grow,” says Nguyen.

College was Nguyen’s first choice. She wasn’t always an “A” plus student. She felt college was her best starting point but her father had gone to college and wanted her to reach higher with her education. So she did.

“I decided to apply to university and got into a few. Although in the end I actually lost my acceptance because I didn’t meet my conditional offer,” Nguyen says. Nguyen’s end goal was to get into university, but she knew she had to take an extra step in order to get there.

Nguyen applied to Durham College (DC) for the health preparation program to help improve her marks in order to apply to university. “I don’t regret going to college at all,” Nguyen says. “When I tell people I went to college first, I used to be embarrassed. It always comes with that stereotype that college isn’t good [enough].”

Photograph by Jessica Stoiku UOIT student Jessica Nguyen on campus
Photograph by Jessica Stoiku
UOIT student Jessica Nguyen on campus.

Depending on the kind of student you are, you may flourish in college. You’re still developing core critical thinking, creative and communication skills that are valuable in both college and university. You can also design your own educational path because Durham College now has more than 450 educational pathways to universities. That wasn’t always the case.

Durham College is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The college first opened its doors in 1967 to just more than 200 students. Now, the school has grown to serving more than 30,000 students in 140 different full-time programs. Durham College’s mission has always maintained a commitment to the success of its students. Durham College’s mission is “the student experience comes first.”

According to Durham College President Don Lovisa, if you graduated from college ten years ago and wanted to go to university, you had to start over.

“If you like to learn by doing then start at college. You’ll get a good, solid education. If you want to pursue higher education, there are so many pathways now,” says Lovisa.

Not only are students making the transition from college to university, there are more university graduates enrolling in college programs. According to ontariocolleges.ca, university graduates enrolling in colleges has increased to 40 per cent in the last five years.

The stereotype of college being easy is diminishing over time. According to Lovisa, students who started at university find college to be the opposite of what they expected. They find the heavy demands of workload, the rigour of the programs to be a challenge.

Lovisa believes you have to do more than just write a paper to say you know what you’re doing. You have to actually demonstrate you know how to do it. That’s where experiential learning comes in.

According to Forbes contributor Amy Rees Anderson, “we ask our young people to decide what they want to be when they grow up but we give them almost nothing in the way of educating and exposing them to their options.”

Young people need experience, and DC can provide this.

Experiential learning is the hands-on education students apply to their in-class studies. Students are given the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of course material in order to understand what their field of study entails on a day-today. The Global Class is an example of this.

Lon Appleby, a DC General Education instructor, founded the Global Classroom. It was developed with his students as part of his General Education elective, Short History of the World. The Global Class uses HD technology similar to Skype to connect a small college classroom with institutions outside of Canada. The idea is to branch outside the four walls of a classroom.

New buildings like the Centre for Collaborative Education, or classes like The Global Classroom that adopt experiential practices, mark some of the developments DC has seen in the last 50 years.

“We have changed enormously as a system. The depth of our programs, the quality of our programs, the respect we have within industry and business and government,” says Lovisa.

Former Durham College President Gary Polonsky believes it’s important to be accessible to students. Polonsky served at Durham College from 1988 to 2006. He is the college’s longest reigning president.

He says he used to walk the halls every day drinking coffee. He would ask students and faculty how their experiences were on campus, then jot down notes to see if there was anything he could do to make it better.

“I would scribble on my Styrofoam cup. Then when I got back to my office I would implement the reminders…into actions.”

Polonsky believes students are still working hard and wanting to learn.

But it’s the hands-on, experiential nature of college education that drives innovation, according to Lovisa.

“We are really fortunate right now to have… a president in Don Lovisa who is ambitious and wants to do something with education. He understands that education is not about textbooks. He really understands that education is changing greatly because of technology,” says Appleby.

“I see the whole experiential learning model as being part of something broader, which is the attempt to redefine what a classroom should be. Anybody today can get everything they need online. You can educate yourself pretty easily,” says Appleby.

There are skills, however, that require expert and professional help students only receive from an institution where the professors are experienced, and understand how to teach skills required of a particular industry or trade or field, Appleby says.

Durham College has over 480 industry partnerships helping to shape college programs so students will have the training they need to succeed after graduating.

“We had about five or six employers coming in to our third-year class to speak to the students, introduce the company they work for and then accept resumes and cover letter packages etc.,” says Beau James, a professor of engineering technology at DC.

Students are required to complete a placement. According to James, the placement course gives students a trial run at searching for jobs as well as being able to land one. The connection between college students and industry is about finding where jobs exist in the particular field students are earning their education in.

Components purchased in the advanced automation lab, for example, are also being used in industry projects. The professors base curriculum on industry equipment.

James believes students who can take theory learned from a lecture and demonstrate they are capable of applying the required skillsets is what appeals to employers.

“That was one of the reasons I would look at a Durham grad… with a bit of an edge over some other grads from other programs. They have hands-on learning,” says James.

According to Colleges Ontario, 84 per cent of students find jobs six months after graduating.

“You come to college to get a job. So here’s your skillset, here’s your knowledge, here’s what you need to be successful,” says Lovisa. “If you’re a student who loves to stick their nose in a book and read and you’re comfortable with that, then university’s a great choice. If you like to learn by doing, then start at college”.

In the end, you have to decide for yourself which education is best for your learning style. The path to your own success isn’t a straight line. You have time and opportunities in order for you to get to where you need to be.

Nguyen’s goal is to become a physiotherapist. Durham College was her first step toward that goal.

Nguyen says to do what works best for you. “This is your life,” she says. “You decide which path you want to take. I know I have so many opportunities.”

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Jessica Stoiku is a second year journalism student at Durham College. With a passion for writing, she enjoys exposing the arts and culture stories of people within the community for The Chronicle. She hopes to work for a publication that focuses on human interest and issues on a broader scale.