The spirit of community is alive and well at St. Clair College, and President Patti France couldn’t be more proud.
Despite a tumultuous two years of navigating COVID-19 protocols and closures, France says the institution has continued to thrive, thanks largely to the support and adaptability of staff, students and the community.
“I’m very fortunate that we have such a wonderful team here,” she says. “The past few years have had their ups and downs, but I can certainly say I love the people I’ve shared the experience with.”
The College is poised for continued growth in 2022, she says, with over 125 in-demand programs, further enhancements to the campus experience, and a path forward for financial sustainability.
Since her tenure began in September 2015, France has been at the helm of the College during some of its greatest advancements in its 55 year history; with record enrollment nearly every year, the highest financial surplus in the province, and several exciting expansions including three during the pandemic.
“I do think we’ve definitely upped the ante from an academy and a social/student life perspective,” she says, noting that one thing the pandemic has not affected over the past few years is St. Clair’s development.
“We’ve seen three major construction projects carried out in the past two years: the new sports park, the new residence through our Toronto campus partnership, and the new academic tower of the School of Business & Information Technology which includes a state-of-the-art arena for our e-sports team which we’re really excited about.”
The school has come a long way since France herself was a student. A graduate of the Computer Science program, she then became an employee of the College in 1987, starting in a support staff position. After various roles in faculty and administration, she became the first female and the first St. Clair alumni to become president in the College’s history.
France is quick to point out that while those are accomplishments she celebrates, she prefers not to get hung up on them; instead focusing her attention on setting a positive example for all those looking to achieve a successful career in a field they love.
“What I’ve really tried to do is just inspire anybody and everybody. To not let anybody tell you you can’t do something. If that includes females, I think that’s wonderful,” she explains. “There are still a lot of people who say, ‘men do this and women do that’ and stereotype certain jobs. I think women today have the ability to be anything they want to be.”
France points to the work the College has done in recent years encouraging females to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)
“We have several projects with WEST of Windsor; lots of apprenticeship programs to encourage females to take on those non-traditional career opportunities and vocations because they’re very rewarding.”
If you have a skill you will always have a job, she says. Regardless of gender.
“At the same time I think it’s important to tell men, ‘just because you’re male, doesn’t mean you can’t go into nursing. So I think removing the stereotyping from any type of job has been really important, in addition to letting people know aspirations are a good thing, and to hang on to your dreams.”
Providing that support and guidance to students has been a focus for France and her administration over the past several years, she shares, adding the school’s service charter is something near and dear to their hearts.
“When we talk about our vision of ‘Excellence in All We Do’ it’s certainly teaching and learning excellence, but service excellence is equally important as academic excellence.”
Part of that is being accessible and listening to the concerns of the student body, something France has strived to do even before she became the school’s president.
“Anybody who wants a meeting gets a meeting, whether it’s virtual or face-to-face. Even during the pandemic, I meet with student leaders once a month,” she says. “That was something that I started as Vice President and it was really important for me to keep that practice going because I think I know what’s going on in our school, and sometimes the students tell me otherwise and that information is invaluable to me.”
France explains that by meeting with students regularily, it makes it easier for them to bring up any challenges they might be facing.
“It was based on their feedback that we started to offer technology bursaries (during the pandemic.) A lot of Colleges and universities did not do that,” she explains. “It was something that was a struggle for people that didn’t even have the technology to engage in online learning.”
Staying connected, both virtually and mentally, was an issue for many during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns, she admits. At a class rep meeting last June, several students relayed to France that they didn’t feel engaged with the online learning model.
“They were graduating but they hadn’t been to the campus in over a year, and that made me really sad,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘We have to, no matter what, get back to face-to-face learning because it was clear that that’s what the majority of students wanted. It was clear that face-to-face interaction was so essential to the educational process.”
After extensive planning and consulting with multiple public health agencies, St. Clair College became one of the only Colleges in Ontario to offer in-person learning in September.
“It was so nice to just see people in the hallways again,” she shares. “Were things perfect? Of course not. But at the end of the day, I think the benefits certainly outweighed any of the obstacles and complications that we overcame and clearly the majority of our students appreciated the face-to-face.”
Applied learning is what makes a College education so valuable, she says, noting the in-person interaction between teacher and student is essential to the educational process.
“We believe that it’s so important,” she says, noting that the true College experience is something that can’t be had virtually. “To be able to sit and chat or to walk the campus, you can’t have that same experience if it’s virtual.”
France says she’s impressed with how students have stayed connected to the community, even through all the hardships of virtual learning.
“When we got back to classes this fall, they jumped right back into the life of the community, with awareness activities and charitable work,” she shares. “Our students in Police Service & Investigation were the largest single and most successful fundraisers for this year’s Goodfellows newspaper sale. They raised $14,000 and the College matched it.”
Being that strong community College that supports local initiatives has been paramount to France throughout her nearly 35 year career, and was one of the driving factors in her applying for the position in the first place.
“I wanted to ensure that was embedded in the culture of our institution,” she says. “In my job interview, I said, ‘I don’t just want to be president of a College, I want to be president of St. Clair College because I love our staff, I love our students. This College means something to me and this community means something to me.”
While the job can be all consuming at times, France says the support of the community and her loved one has kept her grounded and allowed her to fulfill her duties with relative ease.
“You can’t do these jobs without the support of your friends and family. They’re 24-7 jobs and I think when you’re in these types of leadership roles, you have to love what you do. You have to love where you are, you have to love your community. When you do, it’s really not a job. You’re happy to do it. You’re happy to give.”
With that strong backing and a long list of strategic objectives, France is now looking ahead to future opportunities for the College’s expansion, including continued involvement in local research and development projects.
“One of the interesting facets of the College’s operation in the last little while has been our increasing involvement in research and development projects. Most of them are in conjunction with private sector partners in the fields of business, healthcare, and manufacturing,” she shares.
In 2020, St. Clair College was named one of Canada’s Top 50 Research Colleges.
“It was our first time making that list and I suspect that we’ll find ourselves on that list again this year given our important role in some of our new developments in R&D,” she says.
The College has also been a strong partner to the local healthcare sector, not only through their work with Windsor Regional Hospital and the COVID-19 field hospital, but also by training more healthcare workers.
“During the past year, we’ve educated several hundred new Personal Support Worker students and injected them into the healthcare system,” shares France.”I wouldn’t be surprised to see those sorts of opportunities for special funding and training repeated during the next year or two in other healthcare fields, perhaps practical nursing.”
France says that with this additional support from the government, Colleges can bolster their efforts to address labour shortages by recruiting and educating more students in the healthcare sector.
Regardless of what field someone chooses to study, France says that when we do emerge fully from the pandemic, the College be well positioned to accommodate and serve current and future students.
In addition to the developments to the main campus and the Toronto campus, they’ve also expanded their footprint in downtown Windsor, now with nearly 3,000 students studying in the city’s core.
“Just this past September we opened up 333 Riverside Drive. The location is absolutely perfect because it’s within walking distance (of our other buildings),” she says. “We’ve really tried to have an overt presence downtown and hope to expand that presence in the future.”
France says they’re already off to a great start in 2022, with a recent quality audit awarding St. Clair the highest level in every category.
“We met all six standards and all 32 sub-standards without any recommendations that we didn’t already give ourselves in our affirmations,” she beams. “That sends a message to me that we’re moving in the right direction.”
In addition to their focus on service and academic quality, France says they’ve also been able to put together a sustainability reserve and a reserve specifically for deferred maintenance, another first for the College.
“Being able to make sure you put money away for a rainy day is so important, because there could be another pandemic or something else that comes up.”
While she has no plans of slowing down any time soon, France says that when her time at the College is through, she hopes to ensure it remains financially sound and continues with a strong presence in the community.
“Making sure we maintain that high level of service excellence and making sure we have financial sustainability. If when I retire we have those things in place, I will feel really good about what I’ve accomplished.”