As the only comprehensive community college in Calgary, Bow Valley College plays an indispensable role in the city. It provides a variety of learning opportunities – from high school upgrading to English to certificate, diploma and post-diploma certificate programs – to more than 15,000 full- and part-time students a year (over 350,000 since inception). It is a public institution where people from all over the world and from all walks of life can learn according to its “any time, any place, any path, any pace” approach. And now, for the first time in 20 years, it has a new president.
Hailing from Toronto, Laura Jo Gunter assumed the role of president and CEO on January 1, 2017. She takes over from Sharon Carry who, since 1997, has led Bow Valley through substantial growth and change, and whose shoes are large ones to fill. Gunter, with a resumé that makes her prime for the job, is undaunted.
“When I looked at Bow Valley, its strategies and where it was going, and given where I think education is going, it really felt like this was a good place to be,” Gunter says. “We are set up to explore some of those [directions] and be very agile in terms of anything we have to do to move towards them.” The college’s approach to its learners also appealed to her. “It really, really cares about its students,” she says. “I was impressed by that.”
Gunter comes from George Brown College where she was senior vice president of academic. Prior to George Brown, she was the dean of two successive portfolios (the faculty of information arts and technology and then the faculty of communication, art and design) at Seneca College. “Both George Brown and Seneca were large colleges,” Gunter explains of the degree-granting institutions. “Working in those large colleges gave me a very broad perspective in terms of being able to see the different ways colleges can work.”
At George Brown, in particular, Gunter’s job involved much city and community building, including the revitalization of Regent Park and the waterfront, which will be valuable in her role at Bow Valley. “We’ve got the revitalization [of the East Village] happening literally behind us. That’s something I’ve had experience with.”
She also knows what it’s like to function in a downtown campus – a reality Bow Valley must deal with. “There are things that happen in a downtown campus that may not happen if you’ve got lots of land.”
The college has been located downtown on 6th Avenue and 3rd Street Southeast since it began as the Alberta Vocational Centre in 1965. Over the years it has grown, been renamed, renovated and rebuilt, and today it houses not only its own courses but also the Calgary campuses of the University of Lethbridge, Athabasca University and Olds College. In addition to its Calgary location, Bow Valley has regional campuses in Airdrie, Banff, Canmore, Chestermere/Strathmore, Cochrane, High River, Okotoks and Treaty 7 First Nations.
It serves more learners than any other community college in Alberta, with a student makeup that is older – the average age is approximately 28. It is also highly multicultural (learners come from 142 countries and speak 128 different languages) and female – 75 per cent of students are women.
Six schools and centres comprise Bow Valley: Chiu School of Business; School of Health and Wellness; School of Community Studies; School of Creative Technologies; Centre for Excellence in Foundational Learning; and Centre for Excellence for Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement – all of which Gunter believes are vital to Calgary’s economic prosperity.
“We’re very well known for our foundational programming and we’re very proud of it,” she says. “We also have strong career programming. More and more people are coming back to college after they get a degree to get skills for jobs. It’s a really important role that we play in terms of that strong tie into skills, jobs and training.”
In the current downturn, in fact, Bow Valley has seen an approximate nine per cent increase in enrolment. “Colleges are economic drivers,” Gunter says. “We have regional stewardship and we are in the city. We provide a fundamental role in giving people that first chance.”
Some of the more popular certificate and diploma courses Bow Valley offers include the health care aid certificate, hospital unit clerk certificate, practical nurse diploma, business administration diploma, early learning and child care diploma, and justice studies diploma. Its academic upgrading and English language learning programs are also hugely popular.
Experiential and online learning are important at Bow Valley and, according to Gunter, the way of the future. “Education is going through some disruption,” she explains. “It’s starting to remodel some of the ways that we do learning, and I’m really excited about the fact that Bow Valley could be at the forefront of some of that change.”
She highlights the college’s commitment to flexible programming and online learning – integral to the new School of Creative Technologies. “We want to start thinking more flexibly about how we can deliver and yet maintain the standards of the credential – be able to meet the learners where they are and provide an environment so that education is really exciting,” she says. “And being a college we can make it far more experiential.”
Gunter’s interest in the digital world has a basis in her past as an entrepreneur and businesswoman. Before her time at George Brown and Seneca, she was the CEO and co-founder of Condition30 Inc., a software and game company that developed an algorithmic music engine. “When you’ve been an entrepreneur you get really excited by new challenges,” she says. “You’re basically looking into the void and saying I’m going to create something, and not only that, I’m going to convince you that it’s important and useful to you.”
An invaluable skill for a leader. “When you have to make changes or foresee something that’s coming down the road, it’s really useful to be able to provide that context for people so that you can bring them along with that idea.”
Before Condition30, Gunter was vice president of creative and community for User Friendly Media, an online cartoon company. “It was a dot-com,” she reminisces. “We had a lot of fun. It was a highly creative time, and I think when you go through those experiences you really get a sense of what can be possible, even if it doesn’t all work out.”
Gunter returned to education – prior to her work at Condition30 and User Friendly Media she was the vice president of programming, special projects and industry partnerships for the Vancouver Film School and before that, the continuing education program director for applied science at Simon Fraser University – for a couple of reasons. “Education is such a diverse set of experiences,” she says, “so for a very curious person who likes a lot of variety, it’s a really great place to be.” International travel to places like India and China, and involvement with a variety of sectors including health sciences, community services, culinary and fashion, are just some of the things Gunter has enjoyed throughout her career in education.
“And of course the most important thing is that you can go to bed at night and say ‘I helped somebody today’ whether directly or indirectly,” she adds. “You know that you’re doing good work.”
An A student herself – after high school she went to journalism school at Carleton University, worked as a journalist and then completed an MBA at Queen’s – Gunter believes everyone has their own unique strengths, academic or not. “Not everybody does well at school,” she points out. “But high academic achievement isn’t necessarily an indicator of how well you’re going to do in other things. Sometimes it’s just not your time to shine, for a variety of reasons.”
Her breadth of experience was one reason Gunter was offered the job. “We conducted an extensive search and attracted a very competitive group of candidates,” explains David Collyer, chair of Bow Valley’s board of governors. “We selected Laura Jo based on her background in both the private and public sectors, her strong business acumen, her extensive experience in the comprehensive community college environment, her demonstrated leadership skills, a visible commitment to academic excellence and student success and, very importantly, her strong interest in coming to Alberta and Bow Valley College.”
Gunter’s first priority as president is to get to know the college, both internally (including the 662 full-time equivalent staff) and externally. “Preserving the values and getting to know the community and the system – that’s always priority number one,” she says. “And then building on Vision 2020.” (Vision 2020 is a community engagement process embarked on by Bow Valley in 2010 to set the college’s direction over the next 10 years.)
She highlights two areas in particular on which she’s focused. “First, we’re growing, so what does that mean in terms of campus development and expansion, especially because we’re in the downtown core? Second, how will that tie into our technology and digital learning strategies, and how can we be more flexible and accessible for our learners?”
She’s settling into Calgary, in spite of the colder, drier climate. “My mother always said to me ‘live where you are,’” she recalls. “Calgary is a very livable city. We have some amazing neighbourhoods and there’s a lot going on. I’m leaping in with both feet, getting involved with the communities, getting to know the people.”
Challenging economic times don’t discourage her. “Necessity is the mother of innovation. I think right now is a great opportunity. Calgary is diversifying and Bow Valley can start to build some programming around that. We can be part of that city and community building.”
An astute and encouraging perspective from the new president, one that will be welcomed by those working with her and by the city and province she serves. With Gunter steering Bow Valley through the changing waters of education and the growing needs of its community, the college is bound to come through stronger.