Neil Fassina likes to say he was drawn to Okanagan College for its reputation for transforming lives and communities.
But since Fassina became president of OC in April 2021, he admits to still being astonished by how deep that connection is between community and college.
“I dare you to try and walk through your normal day without running into someone or something that has to do with Okanagan College,” Fassina said.
“Whether it’s the alarm clock you woke up to in the morning, the condo or house you live in that was partly built by our students, the vehicle you get into, the office space you work in, you literally bump into people who are OC students or graduates in all walks of life.
“The connection points we have into our community is unbelievable. As I have said, I knew that was there when I arrived, but I did not realize just how deep it was.”
For Fassina, celebrating that past and continuing to cultivate and enhance that relationship in the future are what come to mind for him as OC celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
“I look at 60 years as a pivot point for us. The last 60 years have been really, really cool to see unfold. We stand now on the shoulders of giants who came before us as we now look to how to continue that legacy going forward.”
Fassina feels the recent opening of the health and sciences centre has been a visible turning point in terms of the physical status of the college.
“That is a building that was purposely designed for learning opportunities for a variety of health disciplines and also having some flexibility going into the future,” he said.
While the loss of the nursing program to UBC Okanagan generated some negative media push-back, in the end, it affected less than 25 students and doesn’t take away from the various health care training career options in demand in the workplace students can still pursue.
“We are always wanting to be ready to meet the needs of our students as demands change.”
The same philosophy enters into the food and tourism centre, funded by the province, and the next big fundraising campaign for the Kelowna campus, a wellness centre that will incorporate both a home gym for OC sports teams and other health sciences.
“We are in the process right now of finding out what the optimal wellness centre would look like and we believe we can do it on our own,” Fassina said.
“Ultimately, we want to have a building which can maximize engagement and use from the community…as a way to enhance our college as a public access environment, a wellness centre can serve as one of those anchors to bring people to our campus and remind people OC is not just a bunch of buildings, but a living, breathing community.”
The physical appearance of the OC campuses in Salmon Arm, Kelowna and Penticton is also being enhanced with student residence additions.
He sees added student residence inventory as addressing one of the barriers to people pursuing post-secondary education at OC – affordable housing.
“That student housing is offered at a below market rate so we see that as helping to address that issue but also realize it won’t completely diminish it.”
As well, more students living on OC campuses touches again on creating that “community feel” piece of the institution, while also sending a message that Kelowna is not the only focal point of Okanagan College, that satellite campuses in Salmon Arm, Vernon or Penticton also have an identity onto themselves.
“As you have more people living on campus, it becomes just that, an active 24-hours-a-day community with a degree of vibrancy that makes it attractive to be a part of.”
Looking ahead to the near future, Fassina notes already the concept of micro-credentials is being explored, offering students a chance to take six-week to six-month courses to learn new job skills or enhance training in their present career fields.
He says micro-credential courses don’t take away from other degree or diploma programs, just add another accessible piece of the puzzle that encourages people to be lifelong learners and continue to enhance their job skills.
“For people who want to make themselves into a better person, learn more skills and create better opportunities for themselves, we want to be the school that can help them do that.”
And in keeping with the spirit behind Truth and Reconciliation movement, Fassina also has eyes on growing the Indigenous domestic student population numbers, which currently sits at about 10 per cent.
“We have made great progress since accepting that call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings…we want to continue to work towards Indigenous students having that same opportunity as others and the skills they learn work within their own cultural environments.”