When Dr. Misheck Mwaba became president and CEO of Bow Valley College (BVC) in November 2020, he knew a challenging road lay ahead. Eight months into a global pandemic, with lockdowns and other health measures in full gear and much uncertainty on the horizon, the job of leading the 56-year-old college would not be easy.
However, Mwaba, fortified by a lengthy, varied and international career in both academia (including as vice president Academic at BVC since 2017) and industry, and eager for his next chapter, embraced the role with gusto. He quickly laid out four priorities (reviewing prior accomplishments, refocusing efforts, reaffirming priorities and re-energizing the college) and affirmed the college’s commitment to the Open Doors – Open Minds strategic plan.
One year later, he is both satisfied with what he’s accomplished so far and looking ahead with anticipation.
“It has been an interesting year as you can imagine,” he begins, “filled with both challenges and opportunities. Challenging for our college community because it has taken away our ability for in-person interactions. This has made it extremely difficult for me to effectively engage with internal and external stakeholders.”
Indeed, shortly after assuming his role, Mwaba identified five priorities for the year, the first of which was to engage internal and external stakeholders. Health restrictions notwithstanding, he has made do, forming many solid connections within the BVC community. He is eager to make more.
“As the new president and CEO, it was extremely important for me to build trust with key stakeholders very quickly in my tenure,” he continues. “I wanted to develop strong relationships with the government of Alberta, the business community in Calgary and the surrounding areas.”
Today, BVC has five campuses outside Calgary – High River, Okotoks, Airdrie, Cochrane, Banff and Strathmore (planned to be closed). Mwaba has also built relationships with the Advanced Education Minister’s office, and with other ministers (for example, the Ministers of Labour and Jobs, Economy and Innovation) which have an impact on what BVC does.
To engage with the approximately 1,000 BVC employees, he held many town halls and listening tours.
“My engagement with internal and external stakeholders is not 100 per cent where I would want it to be, but I’ve made progress and I’m really looking forward to the new normal and finding out how we can solidify that,” he reflects.
Mwaba’s second priority was to participate in Alberta 2030 – a government of Alberta initiative aimed at transforming the adult learning system to focus on providing the high quality education, skills and training needed for Alberta’s future.
“We started talking about work integrated learning in 2018,” he says, “and at that point made a bold decision: every student graduating from BVC in five years is going to have an opportunity to do work-integrated learning. We’re currently developing a roadmap of how to implement the Alberta 2030 recommendations within our current strategic plan of Open Doors – Open Minds.” He notes that the college had lobbied for apprenticeship type of delivery and was very pleased when the government expanded the use of apprenticeships to a wider variety of jobs in April.
His third priority was to develop and implement strategies to navigate the COVID-19 challenges. “Our strategy was threefold,” Mwaba explains. “One was to ensure that we enhance remote delivery options to support efficient working and effective teaching and learning. We also wanted to complete a modern classroom pilot and expand it. And then we needed to roll out a re-entry plan.”
The college’s ability to pivot quickly to an online offering for its roughly 14,000 students at the start of the pandemic was the result of pre-pandemic initiatives, including the delivery of courses to students in China using Microsoft Teams. “So when the pandemic was declared we shut down for only 10 days, and when we resumed operations we had a 98 per cent success rate in offering remote learning,” he says.
It’s been the way of life at the college since then. “We had students in our one-year programs who did the entire program via remote learning,” he says. “They’ll be graduating on December 1, and it will be the first in-person convocation since February 2020. We’re looking forward to that.”
The pandemic also forced the college to accelerate the roll out of its high flex model of delivery, which had been in the works. The hybrid model sees some students at the college in the classrooms while others joining remotely from wherever they are. “We identified 25 classrooms and retrofitted them with technology,” Mwaba explains. “We call them modern classrooms. We have instructors piloting this type of delivery, so we can roll it out to more classrooms over time. It’s been very useful for our international students, because they are able to join a community of students even though they’re far away.”
BVC also began piloting flexible working arrangements, where some staff work remotely and others do a hybrid model (some days at the college, some days at home).
Starting in January, the plan is to have all those students who should be on campus back on campus: “Because realistically, this is going to be the new normal where we are going to be working with masks on, so we can start practicing how that looks.”
Mwaba’s fourth priority was to identify initiatives from the Open Doors – Open Minds strategy that can be built upon. One area he has focused on is position BVC as a leader in competency-based education and micro-credentials. The other focus is on the international strategy.
“A large portion of our enrolment is from international students,” he offers. “Pre-pandemic about 21 per cent of our students were international. Now we’re looking at how we can diversify and create new markets to capture those students who are looking to upskill and reskill but don’t want to come to Canada.”
Pivot Ed. is another initiative Mwaba and his team have spearheaded, which is aimed at quickly and effectively helping companies upskill and reskill. Last year, the college received $1.5 million from the Future Skills Centre_________ and is working on a digital platform where employers can identify the competencies they’re looking for and job seekers can take assessments in order to identify gaps.
Another goal was to grow the college’s applied research, to eventually be in the top 20 applied research colleges in Canada. “We are in the top 45 now,” Mwaba says proudly.
His fifth priority was to ensure the college is on sound financial footing. Funding cuts and enrolment uncertainties have made the priority challenging, but BVC’s leadership was still able present a balanced budget to the board.
“Importantly, we have got a plan for alternative revenue streams,” he explains, “because the reality is that budget cuts will continue. We’re talking a combination of corporate partnerships, licensing models, and engagement with international organizations.”
Practical nursing remains BVC’s most popular program, while the business administration diploma in the Chiu School of Business comes in second. “We started the technology programs in 2017 and they have become very, very popular as well,” Mwaba notes. “Our short courses – upskilling and reskilling – and our core areas of high school upgrading, and English language learning also remain very popular. We have students who don’t have high school diplomas, and we’ve got students in post-diploma programs. Some have Master’s, a few have PhDs. We are a very diverse institution.”
It’s his own diverse background which makes Mwaba so well suited to lead the college.
Born and raised in Zambia, in a city called Ndola, Mwaba was the first born of eight children. His family’s home had no electricity, and their water came from a communal tap. He went to school which was the norm and played outside with handmade toys and games. “We made soccer balls using paper, plastics, then we added the rubber from disposed bicycles or inner tubes so they would bounce,” he recalls. “We made cars using wires. We played games by drawing on the ground, on cardboard. We raced using disposed car tires.”
His mother was trained as a teacher and always emphasized the importance of school to have a better future. “I got that message very early on,” Mwaba recounts. “I started writing a sentence in bold on the cover of my books that said, ‘Education is the golden key to a better future.’ I took school very seriously and I was either the top or second in class.”
Though his early aspirations were to be an accountant, he ended up being accepted into the University of Zambia’s main campus to study mechanical engineering. After graduating he worked for Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines as a vibrations engineer for one year, then returned to the university as an assistant professor. He traveled to the UK to complete his Master’s degree in mechanical engineering focused on solid mechanics, and eventually completed his PhD, partly in the Netherlands and partly in Zambia.
In 2003, Mwaba and his wife and two sons arrived in Canada at Ottawa’s Carleton University where he studied as a postdoc fellow in energy technology. After finishing his postdoc he took a job with Atomic Energy of Canada as a mechanical research engineer. “My work there was to combine simulations and experimental work,” he says. “Basically provide programs to test the safety aspects of the CANDU nuclear reactor.”
He then took a position at Algonquin College as chair, Mechanical and Transportation Technology, responsible for the engineering, trades in automotive and electrician programs. From there, he moved to Niagara College as dean of Media, Trades and Technology.
“In 2017 I had an opportunity to compete for vice president Academic at BVC and I was the successful candidate,” he says happily. “Two things impressed me when I came here: one was how diverse the institution was and continues to be. The second is how innovative the college was. What depressed me was how, despite the innovation, BVC is a very shy institution. People don’t want to talk about their achievements. So I made it a personal goal that people hear about the good things that BVC does. To elevate the profile.”
“I really have a vision to take BVC to the world,” he continues. “I don’t mean relocating from Calgary. Rather, that BVC should be recognized outside Calgary, within Calgary, and outside Canada, for our broadened view of access that includes upskilling and reskilling. We take a leadership role in micro-credentials. We also want to be known for innovative program delivery and student support services.”
With his wealth of knowledge and experience, Mwaba is the steady-hand guiding BVC through difficult and changing times. His optimism and determination are just what it needs to make it through stronger than ever. The college, under his watch, will continue to be a leading post-secondary institution in Alberta, Canada and the world.