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Students throughout Manitoba face pandemic head-on: Regional campuses committed to meeting industry demands

August 12, 2020

Much has been made over the last few months of the rapid changes, pivots and personal sacrifices made to minimize the impact of COVID-19-related disruptions on students at Red River College.

And while many of those changes relate to operations at RRC’s primary campuses in Winnipeg, the same measures were in play at regional campuses throughout the province, where for years staff and students have been rising to industry demands at a growing rate.

“We believe in thinking big,” says Dr. Christine Watson, Vice-President, Academic. “By continuing to innovate and keeping a focus on the future, RRC now has eight campuses across the province — each equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and knowledgeable, talented instructors. By listening to Manitoba’s communities, we are empowered to support industry growth, employ more Manitobans, strengthen our communities, and extend the standards of RRC educations, which our province has learned they can trust.”

As Watson explains, the College’s commitment to establishing roots in Manitoba communities accounts for a significant part of its overall identity and impact.

“We need to provide pathways to education and training that meet students where they are, and where they want to go,” she says. “For some, the ability to live, study and work in their hometown is essential.”

Robyn Kupchik 2020A 19-year-old Selkirk resident who graduated from high school in summer 2019, Robyn Kupchik made the spontaneous choice to pursue a career as a health care aide a few months later.

The decision proved prescient, as by March of this year, the province’s health-care industry was battening down the hatches in anticipation of COVID-19, and the potential for a shortage of trained workers in Manitoba. And even though RRC’s Interlake Campus had to close its doors and move to online delivery, staff and instructors came together to ensure the transition was as smooth as possible.

“Some periods were very stressful, but with such great support from my instructor, it made it a lot easier,” says Kupchik. “The most challenging part was learning how to learn on my own and giving myself the discipline to do my work from home.”

“It definitely took a toll on me … but with the support from my family, friends and boyfriend, I was able to get through those obstacles, whether that was by (those people) being supportive and listening to how I felt, or just by getting me away from my books and having some fun.”

As it turns out, living through a pandemic also motivated Kupchik to take her post-secondary goals even further — she now plans to work in health-care while saving money to go back to school at some point in the future.

“The pandemic itself hasn’t made me change my decision to work as a health care aide, but it has shown me it’s something I don’t plan on doing for the rest of my life. Although it’s a very rewarding job, it’s also very stressful, and during times like these can be very physically and emotionally exhausting.”

Tony HarderNiverville resident Tony Harder enrolled in Business Administration at RRC’s Steinbach Campus two years ago, having been attracted by the short program length and option for transferring credits to other post-secondary institutions.

“(The two-year commitment) was highly appealing because it meant I wasn’t sinking myself into four years of schooling from Day One; instead it seemed like the breaking of a bigger goal into more manageable and attainable goals,” says Harder, 25. “And hearing that RRC and a number of universities had programs, systems and processes for students to complete degrees if they chose to is something that means a lot to me. It means most of the courses I did take would be relevant and transferable to another institution.”

Harder also pointed out the campus’s relative proximity to his home (a half-hour drive, compared to a much longer daily commute to Winnipeg), and the comparatively low cost of the program, especially once government subsidies were factored in.

Though he was unfazed by the pandemic — noting his church provided ongoing support as needed — he did find the pace of certain courses to be a challenge, along with the leadership roles he took on during group assignments and projects.

“The process for me has been tiring, but learning to work with and navigate around other people, how to orient them to achieve a goal, and the growth in interacting with others have all been satisfying rewards,” he says.

Having received his diploma over the summer, Harder now plans to find work in accounting or finances, and after a year or two in the field, to potentially complete a degree in business. He says his time at Steinbach Campus has left him well positioned to do so.

“Before reaching a degree, masters or PhD, learning the general things about an industry comes first (at RRC),” he says. “The regional campuses are a great avenue through which to pursue learning industry basics before moving to complete a degree or other advanced certification.”

Caelan Giesbrecht 2020Fellow Business Administration graduate Caelan Giesbrecht, who completed the program in Winkler, agrees with the sentiment, noting the College has done a great job of keeping satellite campuses connected “so it feels like one well-oiled machine.”

“With increases in technology and implementation of new devices and programs, you are able to choose from even more courses at many of the regional campuses,” says Giesbrecht, 20. “You have the chance to build closer and more effective relationships that last a long time — whether it be the bonds you make with classmates or the time spent discussing topics in small groups with instructors.”

A Garden Valley Collegiate grad, Giesbrecht initially considered a career in digital media design, but found Business Administration’s mix of theoretical and practical knowledge to be a better fit.

“This program in particular crams a lot into two years, and keeping up always took intention and commitment,” he says. “As a rural student, my experience was slightly different … I was able to spend more time with all my classmates, which helped cultivate good working relationships. We knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses well, and utilized them fully. I was challenged to go above and beyond and to push myself further by peers, instructors and the courses themselves.”

Like many, Giesbrecht also called on family supports when the pandemic arose and delivery shifted online. He says he’s grateful for the challenges posed by the last few months, since they taught him the importance of being adaptable and flexible in any situation

Having recently seen his efforts earn him a Gold Medal Award in his program, he says the pandemic hasn’t affected his hopes or goals for the future, which include a career in finance and continued growth as a lifelong learner.

“I hope to achieve all I sought out to, even in the midst of this crisis,” he explains. “Now, more than ever, we need people to push themselves further.”

Sadie Rushton 2020No stranger to pushing herself, MacGregor resident Sadie Rushton returned to school last year at 31, having already attained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Manitoba and worked at a local insurance agency for 11 years. Like Giesbrecht and Harder, she enrolled in Business Administration, in her case to gain the skills to own and manage her own business.

Work and family commitments would’ve made relocating to Winnipeg or Brandon difficult, so the proximity of RRC’s Portage Campus — along with the program’s focus on entrepreneurship, management, accounting and human resources — made for a relatively simple choice.

On track to graduate next spring, Rushton says her experience so far has been great, noting she’s enjoyed making connections and learning practical skills that can be immediately applied in the workforce. And while time management and work/life balance continue to pose challenges, her years of prior experience made COVID-related obstacles easier to overcome.

“Transitioning to online learning in Spring 2020 went well,” she says. “My instructors were quick to move to online lectures and communicated with us daily. I have taken distance education classes from the University of Manitoba and the Insurance Brokers Association of Manitoba, so I had prior experience with self-study … It was hard not being able to study with my friends, but we were able to communicate with messenger and Zoom meetings.”

Rushton is now considering a number of post-grad career choices, including pursuing her CPA and practising as an accountant, opening her own bookkeeping business, or even exploring a stint in municipal politics.

“I plan on keeping my options open and deciding on my career after graduation and some workplace experience,” she says. “The pandemic has not affected my career aspirations, as there continues to be a demand for leadership, organization and financial management in our economy.”

As Watson points out, Rushton isn’t alone among RRC grads, who regardless of geographical location are committed to helping rebuild industries and reshaping lives.

“It’s that continued growth and momentum that will help our province and economy emerge from these past few months,” says Watson. “And if our students have shown us one thing, it’s that we have the resiliency, adaptability and hope to move forward.”