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Locals reflect on the impact of rural education opportunities

Masha Scheele
Local Journalism Initiative

Three local women are sad to see Grande Prairie Regional College (GPRC) close its doors in Hinton, but are hopeful for continued post-secondary education offered locally.

Joan Melvin credits her continued education to rural post-secondary access.

Prior to her move to Hinton in 2006, she was a telecommunication specialist in Vancouver, which wasn’t something she could do in Hinton. After learning about the Yellowhead Regional Education Consortium (YREC), she discovered the social work diploma. 

GPRC made university transfer (UT) courses available through distance learning and Melvin was able to finish her entire program while living in Hinton. 

University courses were offered via video conferencing and the social work courses were mostly in person. Via video conferencing, students in one community could follow along and interact with the classroom where an instructor was teaching in another community.

“It was absolutely remarkable that I was able to do my entire program locally. With what else was going on in my life at the time, that’s the only way that I could have done it,” Melvin said.

“It was very significant and astounding for me, coming from a major urban centre to be able to receive a college diploma in a small community. It’s pretty remarkable.”

She feels sad to think about the loss of adult education in the community.

For a working adult, having access to local post-secondary education can often make the difference between signing up for a program or not, she said.

Despite the loss, Melvin is still optimistic about the next evolution in rural education.

Distance learning has become very common now, but at the time she took her courses it was very innovative, she said.

She’s curious to see what educational institutions can come up with next.

“My biggest concern is that rural Alberta tends to be forgotten in a lot of ways. I’m hoping they find a new and maybe a better way to deliver education in rural communities,” she said.

Even though she prefers to be taught in person, online courses have come a long way and are much more common.

She noted that with the local presence of a school in Hinton, the college was able to have a better pulse on community needs. 

“I think that secondary education is worth pursuing regardless of how difficult it is. I hope it doesn’t deter anyone from furthering their education and I hope people come forth with innovative ideas on what would work for them,” Melvin said.

Leslie Dolan, another GPRC alumni and past classmate of Melvin, added that instead of closing the locations in West Yellowhead, GPRC should be more strategic about what they offer in each community.

“Making yourself relevant to the population instead of wringing your hands and saying why doesn’t anyone want what we have to offer,” she said.

She added that certain courses, like trades, can’t be taught via online platforms, as hands-on learning is imperative.

Dolan, who lives in Jasper, completed the social work diploma through GPRC in Hinton and then went on to complete her degree through a blended distance learning program from the University of Calgary.

“I was able to complete the whole degree by distance, basically, with a little bit of travel. I did have to go back and forth to Hinton for quite a while. That’s achievable with an hour of drive,” she said.

Dolan would never have considered post-secondary education at that point in her life, with kids at home and work.

She graduated with her diploma at the same time as her oldest daughter graduated high school.

GPRC then decided to run the program for another round and her daughter signed up as Dolan went on to finish her degree.

“I segued right into the degree program and [my daughter] started on the diploma program. It was super cool, we were in school at the same time for a couple of years and it was awesome,” she said.

The accessibility of the program made it possible for both her and her daughter to complete post-secondary education, and it was the most economical way to go to school.

“My daughter said now that she would have never pursued that if it hadn’t been available and not have the support from us to do that,” Dolan added.

The Hinton campus also offered a lot of upgrading and basic level courses, which is important for people who want to further their education or have a better paying job, Dolan commented.

Dolan worked as a career and employment counselor and always tried to weave in opportunities to promote local post-secondary that exists in rural communities. 

It can be easier for single moms to imagine education if it’s offered locally, she said.

In the 1990s, Nikki Holuk moved to Canada from the U.S. and despite her accounting and bookkeeping experience she didn’t have the right certification to go back to the workforce.

She had been out of work for more than 10 years, but with two teenagers at home she couldn’t leave to take courses in the city. 

After two micro computer accounting courses, she was offered a great job and continued her courses part-time while working. She later took another human resources class and a taxation class.

“I’ve always felt it’s really important for anyone, especially females, to get their education so if anything happens in the future they are employable and they have some skills,” Holuk said.

She was able to take just one or two courses per semester until she finished her diploma four years later.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to school [otherwise] and I’m not good at doing correspondence work. I want the hands-on with somebody there to help me through it,” she said.

At the time, she went through her courses with a group of other students and they were able to sit down together and help each other through the program.

Holuk also believes this will be a loss for the community and a loss for those who can’t and won’t leave the community for post-secondary education.

Holuk had the opportunity to continue courses online after receiving her diploma through Athabasca university, but she said the intermediate accounting courses she needed to continue would have been very difficult to pursue online.

“I think it’s very important to keep that education in town,” she said.