In the spring of 1966, when miniskirts, the Beatles and Bonanza were all the rage, Bruce Craig was a teenager who’d had enough of high school. He had no intention of returning for Grade 13 in the fall. Then he spotted a newspaper story about a new learning opportunity coming to his Scarborough neighbourhood. Craig asked his mother to drop off an application. And as the story goes, that day he became the first student to register for the brand new Centennial College.
As a child in South Korea, Seui-Gi Cho dreamed of airplanes, inspired by a great-uncle who worked as an aviation engineer and showed her stacks of photographs and aircraft designs. Today, Cho, 22, is pursuing a career as an aviation technician far from her Seoul home in the hangar and classrooms at one of Centennial’s four campuses.
Craig and Cho are Centennial students of the past and present. Their experiences half a century apart reflect how much Ontario’s first community college — and the college system at large — have transformed since William Davis, education minister at the time and later Premier, announced an innovative network of schools to train baby-boomers for the technological revolution.
When Craig walked through Centennial’s doors opening day Oct. 17, 1966, he had no idea he was on the wave of a groundbreaking shift in post-secondary education in Ontario. All he knew was the school was close to home, the classes were small and the business administration program (tuition $ 190) promised to be practical, hands-on preparation for the job market.
“Everybody in my class all felt the same way. They were all really excited and thrilled to be there,” says Craig, 69, who has retired from a career in pharmaceutical sales. “It felt like a new beginning for a lot of people.”
Fifty years later, the Centennial College that Cho arrived at is barely recognizable, yet still grounded in the fundamentals of applied learning. She’d studied avionics back home, but wanted practical experience instead of theory.
Craig, like most of his classmates, was a kid from the neighbourhood when he began his business course. Today, colleges still draw largely from their surrounding communities. But Cho is part of an exploding cohort of international students, which at Centennial has grown by 78 per cent in the last five years and now accounts for a third of its 20,200 full-time students. There have even been reported sightings of a Centennial College poster on the back of a bus in rural India.
It’s two months after the official 50th birthday celebration when Craig and Cho meet on a blustery December day in the sunlit student hub at Centennial’s Ashtonbee campus in Scarborough, where Cho has just finished exams in the aging hangar out back. Beginning in the fall of 2019, students in her program will relocate to a state-of-the-art aerospace facility at the old Downsview air force base, thanks to $ 44.2 million announced by Ottawa and the province in November.
Craig looks around at the spacious contemporary building he’s never laid eyes on. It’s a long way from the former radar assembly factory he entered in 1966 amid the sound of hammers and drills as workers scrambled to finish renovations. That original campus has since been turned into condominiums.
Yet something he can’t put his finger on is familiar here.
“There was a déjà vu as I walked in.”
Dramatic change has taken place at Centennial and the other 19 colleges that opened across the province in 1967, from Windsor to Ottawa to Thunder Bay.
And not just in the architecture.
As the father of the community college system, Davis envisioned a network that was parallel but equal to universities, notes Michael Skolnik, professor emeritus at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.
It represented “a step towards democratization of higher education” at a time when university was primarily for the privileged and there were few other options, he adds.
But “parity of esteem” was a long time coming.
“At the time, we might have been considered third-class,” laughs Craig — behind universities and an emerging powerhouse called Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, now a university.
Today, colleges are sought-after destinations.
And, in what Skolnik calls an unforeseen shift, the fastest-growing cohort is students who have university degrees but are seeking applied and technical skills to get a job.
For students like Craig, college was a stepping stone to university. He went on to earn a sociology degree from Trent University.
The number of colleges granting four-year degree programs — with experiential and applied components — has grown by 200 per cent in the last decade. Students are lining up for collaborative college and university programs that offer both a diploma and a degree in four years.
Skolnik recalls the energy and sense of adventure surrounding the birth of colleges, just as he was beginning his career as a young researcher and visiting college campuses.
“There was such an excitement among the administrators and faculty because they felt they were really part of an important social movement occurring across the province and the country,” he says.
“Colleges were providing options for people that didn’t exist before. Being part of it was a real high for the people involved.”
Bruce Craig remembers the thrill when Centennial, named for Canada’s 100-year birthday, opened its doors with 519 students, a faculty of 28 and no shortage of youthful energy.
As acting president of the student council, Craig led a march to Queen’s Park that year — to say thank you. He was one of a few students invited into Davis’ office for a chat.
Craig can’t recall any women in his class of about 25. But there were 14 enrolled in the one-year secretarial sciences program that would become Centennial’s first graduating class in 1967, a celebration attended by then-Premier John Robarts.
The bureaucrat doing the hiring drew her a map of the province and covered it in dots where all the new colleges were to be located.
Teachers had three weeks to set up their classrooms, but most mornings they couldn’t find their desks because construction had moved them during last-minute fixes. The first president, John Haar, wore a hard hat while sitting at his.
On opening day, a rain barrel in the hallway caught the rain dripping through the ceiling, recalls Marion, 72, over the phone from her winter home in Arizona.
After all, “this is what I wanted since I was little.”
COLLEGES BY THE NUMBERS
Choices: 900 programs offered at 24 English and two French-language colleges, ranging from skilled trades to biotech to IT and journalism
Current enrolment: 220,000 full-time students; 300,000 part-time
Students enrolled who have a university degree: 15 per cent, up more than 40 per cent from five years ago
International students: 12 per cent of total students, up from 5 per cent five years ago
Employment: 83 per cent of college grads find jobs within six months.
Source: Colleges Ontario