UNBC President Daniel Weeks hopeful about approval for nursing school in Fort St. John

A plan for a nursing school in Fort St. John is in the hands of the advanced education ministry, and the president of the University of Northern British Columbia believes a green light from the province could come soon.

Daniel Weeks, recently confirmed for a second term to lead the university, was in Fort St. John Thursday for a board meeting and alumni gathering. In an interview with Alaska Highway News, Weeks said the university and Northern Lights College have put forward an attractive proposal for the province to consider, and will be forging ahead with campus renovations in anticipation of an approval.

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"The real sweet spot, so to speak, in this is the strong partnership we've developed with the college. I think that's going to be the thing that's going to tip this now in our favour," Weeks said.

"It makes sense. We don't need to reinvent these programs and try to duplicate what each other is doing. It's better we leverage the strengths of both institutions in a way that makes it better for the potential students in the north."

Talks between the university and college, along with Northern Health and the City of Fort St. John, began in earnest in February.

Northern Health projects Northeast B.C. will need an average of 78 registered nurses per year over the next four years to fill staffing gaps, a number officials fear will only get worse if education needs aren’t addressed.

Weeks couldn't predict the government's timeline for approval, but said campus renovations will begin in the meantime.

"It's hard to know, I think it could come sooner than later. They're on their timeframe," he said.

"In the meantime, we have work to do as well to get ready. We'll be renovating some of the space here at the campus we share in Fort St. John with Northern Lights College. We'll renovate some of that space to get ready for this program. Things are moving ahead as we would expect them and I'm confident that we'll get there."

Alaska Highway News sat down with Weeks to talk about plans for his second term at the helm of the university, program developments, attracting students, and why he sees agriculture as an emerging opportunity for the north.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

AHN: Congratulations, you were recently renewed for a second term as president.

Daniel Weeks: It's a five-year term, it'll take me to 2022, and I'm very excited about keeping the momentum going and many of the successes we've had, not only in Prince George but on all of our campuses. Certainly the Fort St. John work we do is incredibly important to the bigger plan for the University of Northern British Columbia.

AHN: Let's talk about that momentum and the bigger plan. Where do you want UNBC to be at the end of your second term?

DW: The pathways from the colleges to our institution, I want those to be smoother and more robust, and have more opportunities for those pathways. The three northern colleges and UNBC have come together on a very extensive marketing campaign. We all have our specialties and niche programs, but what we're doing is really marketing the north in general as a destination for international students, for students across Canada, and for students right here in British Columbia.

At the end of my next term, I hope we make those pathways to all the programs that are available at UNBC more robust. As always, we want to help develop programming that is targeted at some of the needs of the communities.

We have a proposal right now in front of the government for expanding our nursing offerings here. We're pretty excited about it. With the incredible help of Northern Lights College, they've been absolutely fantastic in developing this proposal, I think we finally have the right kind of partnership and proposal that's going to be really attractive to government.

We're also looking the potential for increased offerings in physiotherapy as well, another major need in the north. We're just going to keep on keeping on. We're trying to, in some sense, shrink the size of the north in a way that allows students to be more mobile through the institutions here in the north.

AHN: Coming back to the nursing school, how soon will we see a decision?

DW: It could come fairly soon. We have done a few iterations, we've met with representatives from the ministry of advanced education, they've been very helpful in helping us craft a proposal they think is quite attractive. We've had a few back and forths, and they wanted more details on some things. I think the real sweet spot, so to speak, in this is the strong partnership we've developed with the college. I think that's going to be the thing that's going to tip this now in our favour.

It makes sense. We don't need to reinvent these programs and try to duplicate what each other is doing. It's better that we leverage the strengths of both institutions in a way that makes it better for the potential students in the north.

AHN: Do you think this is something to come in the province's next budget cycle?

DW: It's hard to know. I think it could come sooner than later. They're on their timeframe. But in the meantime we have work to do as well to get ready. We'll be renovating some of the space here at the campus we share in Fort St. John with Northern Lights College. We'll renovate some of that space to get ready for this program. Things are moving ahead as we would expect them and I'm confident that we'll get there.

AHN: What other programming would you like to see established over this term?

DW: Certainly business. The opportunities for business here in the north are huge. We are also looking at some initiatives on our own campus around entrepreneurism and related kinds of programming. These are absolutely incredibly valuable to the north and in areas like Fort St. John. Look at the growth and development here as the various industries expand. The need for business savvy individuals are paramount.

The other major development this past year is the fact we've been accredited and have received money for an engineering program. This is absolutely huge for UNBC, it's huge for the north. With the opportunities for the developments of new businesses, new companies, engineers are going to be in big demand. And the fact we can train them here in the north, where they'll stay and make their lives and develop those businesses and expertise, is absolutely incredible.

AHN: UNBC recently opened a Community Development Institute office in Fort St. John, which is primarily research based. What opportunities are there for UNBC to expand its university-level research in the city?

DW: There's always opportunities for that. One of the initiatives we're working on in the area of entrepreneurism is indeed that kind of idea — it's not just to teach about entrepreneurism, but to do research around things like aboriginal entrepreneurism, and the kind of work that would lead us to understand what the key factors are in helping business develop. That's a research area in and of itself. So, what are the challenges and what are the opportunities to facilitate that?

AHN: What about research related to the resource industry?

DW: We have a partnership we're facilitating right now with Thompson Rivers University and the University of British Columbia at Okanagan. That three-way partnership is looking at things like developing research around resiliency in the environment, about reclamation of the lands once the resource extraction has happened. What research do we need to understand how to get that land back to the way it was?

Another major area for us I would argue goes right alongside the resource work is agriculture in the north. This is an emerging area of opportunity. Climate change is happening but it does mean that the growing season potentially is going to be longer further north. We're interested very much in doing more research around the kinds of opportunities for agriculture in the north to deal with issues of food security.

All of that goes together, it's all related to development in the north.

AHN: What is the university doing in attracting students and increasing opportunities for indigenous students?

DW: Our enrolment this year of indigenous students, who declare themselves as aboriginal students, is, I think, at all time high. It's as high as it's been certainly in the past several years.

Across the board, for all students, we're very interested in the retention of our students. We attract students but then we want to keep them up here because that's the long-term plan, in terms of economic development in the north and the role that we can play.

So, we've invested a lot in making our campus more welcoming, more exciting, places that people want to stay and study. The university was created in the north and for the north, and that's been the mantra ever since I arrived. We don't want to lose sight of that.

We have to be in the north for the north, but looking globally. We're trying to position our university as a northern university here in B.C., but also relevant across the north. Now we're included in international rankings, world rankings.

We don't want UNBC to be the best kept secret. That's not a good strategy. We want everyone to know about UNBC and where it is, particularly for international students, and students anywhere else in Canada for that matter.

If you really want to come here and have a Canadian experience, yes, it's great to visit the Lower Mainland and Vancouver's a lovely city. So is Montreal, and so is Calgary and Toronto. But, if you really want to come and see what Canada is about, walk outside the door here in Fort St. John. This is Canada. I think international students really need to see more than just metropolitan areas, they really need to see the real Canada.  

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

© Copyright 2018 Alaska Highway News

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