Universities: Empowering students, Seeding change

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University of Alberta’s class of 2019 joins more than one million other undergraduate students in Canada heading to class this fall. The vast majority will study in public institutions, supported by the dollars and the expectations of their fellow Canadians. Is that support justified? Absolutely. University of Alberta alumni have collectively founded more than 70,000 organizations all over the world, generating annual revenues of $348.5 billion. These alumni have created more than 1.5 million jobs worldwide, including about 390,000 in Alberta. We’re not alone. Canada’s U15 Research Universities all play a critical role in developing and supporting the social and economic well-being and prosperity of the publics they serve as well as communities across the globe.  Important questions are being raised today about the value of the education our students receive. Universities are being challenged to think about how degrees, programs, teaching methods and academic calendars need to evolve to meet the demands of a world that is changing faster than ever before. At the same time, we are striving to ensure that every qualified student regardless of background or financial means has access to the education they need to succeed.

These are challenges that I take seriously — as do all of my colleagues across Alberta and Canada. Universities and employers are working together to increase our students’ opportunities to gain highly valued workplace skills through internships, co-ops and practicums. Other experiential learning experiences are also on the rise.

Universities, though, are not only about numbers and statistics or job readiness. We play a more significant, fundamental role. We empower individuals — both students and researchers — to use their talents and skills for the public good. Take Joshua Lee, a graduate student in U of A’s department of medical genetics. With his expertise in molecular technology, he has designed small, DNA-like molecules that have the potential to circumvent genetic mutations that cause Duchenne muscular dystrophy, the most common lethal genetic disorder in children worldwide.

That’s what a university education is for. Students gain the knowledge, skills and experience they need to imagine and create a world that is different and better than the one we know. Given the chance to participate in U of A’s Undergraduate Research Initiative, Elaine Laberge, a person marked by generational poverty, found her voice, entered grad school, and is now teaching our community how to be better, to listen more effectively to the stories of people living in or coming from poverty.

Consider, too, aspiring physician Tracy Pham and mining engineering student Victoria Thomsen. Tracy spent this summer at Berlin’s most prestigious university hospital as part of the e3 Berlin program which involves an internship, language immersion and coursework. Victoria spent her summer 200 kilometres south of the 60th parallel living in the Beaver First Nation, learning a different perspective on land use, resource management, governance, and cross-sectoral and cross-cultural relationship building. For both young women, the experience of being welcomed into and taught how to work in another culture transformed their learning experience and changed them as individuals. Each now sees more clearly the kind of professional they want to be and understands more deeply the contributions they can make within society.

I share these stories because they contain the seeds of social change, economic diversification, cultural understanding and better health and well-being essential to Alberta and Canada. Multiply these stories thousands of times over and imagine the impact these students, and their classmates, will have on our communities. Imagine how they will drive change. Imagine how they will innovate. Imagine how they’ll lead this nation. Take pride in the fact that today’s colleges and universities are contributing to their future, and yours, in ways that generations before could not have imagined at all.