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Diversity on the Prairie: A College Cultural Mosaic

Lethbridge College in Alberta, Canada, attracts a diverse student body despite its location.

Lethbridge is a small city of approximately 83,000 people located in Alberta, Canada, an hour’s drive north of the Montana border. The landscape in this region is striking — a combination of flat prairie grasses shouldered by “coulees,” a magnificent collection of hills and ravines that are not only beautiful, but useful. Those who love the outdoors spend time hiking and enjoying the abundant wildlife and the amazing scenery. And, of course, the Canadian Rockies are only a short drive away.

Lethbridge is home to Lethbridge College, an institution that has been resident in the city for more than 50 years. Lethbridge was the first publicly funded college in Canada, originally based on the American junior college model. At present, the organization provides a comprehensive slate of programs — arts and sciences university transfer, certificates, diplomas (similar to associate degrees), apprenticeship and applied degrees. Although at this writing there are no offerings, Lethbridge College’s mandate from the provincial government also includes baccalaureate degrees.

Another interesting feature about Lethbridge College is that this institution resides in traditional Blackfoot Territory — the college sits next to the largest land mass reserve (reservation) in Canada, home to the Blackfoot people. Chief Mountain, a flattopped peak in Glacier National Park in Montana, can be seen for miles around. The legend goes that as long as you can see the Chief, you are standing on Blackfoot land.

Recognizing that Lethbridge College resides in “rurban” Alberta (not quite urban, but yet not rural) one might expect the institution to have a fairly homogenous student population; however, the diversity is absolutely striking.

Thirty percent of the students attending LC are not from Lethbridge; although the institution attracts students from across Canada, you might not expect to see such an international population. At the present time, the college has students registered from 66 different countries; on any given day, it is not unusual to hear multiple languages spoken as one navigates the campus.

The documented First Nations, Métis and Inuit (Native Canadians) compose approximately 9 percent of the LC population. It is anticipated that this number is low, as many of these students choose not to self-declare. The college is home to the Piita Pawanii Learning Centre, a gathering place for FNMI learners. In partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada, a transition program for Native Canadians provides special support to ensure these students succeed.

The blending of international and local cultures is very powerful. Each year Lethbridge College supports the FNMI Student Club for Native Awareness Week. The programming includes traditional arts and crafts, storytelling, opportunities for all students to sample traditional food and a group of colorful dancers. The highlight was watching a group of accomplished Blackfoot performers teach Japanese students how to “Chicken Dance” — an incredibly powerful experience for an international learner.

Lethbridge College also partners with the Nippon Institute of Technology in Tokyo. Students learn English on a Canadian NIT campus not far from the college and then transition into postsecondary programming at LC. The arts and sciences track is accepted directly into a degree at Nippon University, so the students have a Canadian experience and a seamless transition between the three institutions.

Lethbridge is also home to an amazing group of Kenyan athletes. These runners regularly take provincial and national honors; one of these students has competed in NCAA events and has yet to lose. He hopes to gain his citizenship and compete for Canada in the 2012 Olympics.

And, not all of LC’s international students are in Alberta. The college delivers its business administration program via instructorfacilitated DVDs at Estar University in Qiangdou, China. The Chinese faculty came to Lethbridge College to meet with local instructors to understand Western teaching methods; the LC faculty deliver the final examination to ensure academic integrity. These Chinese students perform as well or better than our on-campus learners. If they meet TOEFL requirements, they will have access to all of the transfer and articulation opportunities that our local learners enjoy.

Lethbridge College has an emergency loan program for learners who find themselves in financial difficulty; the default rate is incredibly low as students (both local and international) truly appreciate the support. Global students from homelands experiencing political challenges often find themselves unable to contact family. LC’s safety net helps them weather the financial storm as they are waiting to reconnect with loved ones. This past holiday season, LC hosted a dinner for all international learners. The evening’s entertainment included offerings from many cultures and a broad menu of different types of foods.

The power of diversity cannot be underestimated. Studies have shown that the ability to hold two different (and competing) constructs in one’s mind builds the capability to think critically. In a global marketplace, recognizing and valuing the tremendous opportunity to learn from others “not like me” is incredibly compelling and an important asset of a postsecondary education at Lethbridge College.

— Dr. Tracy Edwards is president and CEO of Lethbridge College. The forum is sponsored in partnership with the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) at The University of Texas at Austin.

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