Wearing everything from bell-bottoms to tie-dyed shirts, the first students of Conestoga College made their way through dust and construction to find their seats in 21 portables that functioned as classrooms. There were only 188 students and 25 faculty members that first day of classes on Jan. 8, 1968.
The dreary appearance of what was then the first signs of Conestoga’s Doon campus had developed the nickname “Stalag 17” after a Second World War German prison camp.
Today it’s hard to imagine that scattered scene. Conestoga now holds approximately 11,000 full-time, 35,000 continuing education and 4,000 apprenticeship students. The growth over the past 46 years has been immense and some people have helped to guide its pathway.
John Tibbits has been the president of Conestoga College since 1987 and is the longest-serving president in the Ontario college system. In the 1992 anniversary release of the book, Conestoga College, Twenty-Five Years of Evolution That Works, he explained that the first few years were definitely the hardest.
“… Although we had a lot of good ideas we didn’t have the money to do them,” Tibbits said.
He must have found a way because since then the school has grown dramatically, in more ways than one. Paul Scott, broadcast radio program co-ordinator, has had a history with Conestoga College going back to 1988. He ended up becoming a full-time teacher in 1991 and fell in love with the school and its students.
From behind his pale yellow glasses Scott smiles at the thought of his first interview for the position. “Back then … the Student Client Services Building didn’t exist. There were just portables over there.”
The skeleton of Conestoga’s main building is still a large part of the current school’s structure, but it continues to grow. The recreation centre was finished in 1980 and because of its dome shape was referred to as the “golden arches.” The building holds an Olympic-sized ice rink, auditorium and a gym. Today, 34 years later, plans are in the works to renovate or demolish that very same building.
Times continue to change, with the rec centre not being the only addition to the original school. The woodworking centre, engineering centre, and E-wing and F-wing are all just some of the add-ons. The F-wing was opened in August 2011 and offers state-of-the-art technology for students in the School of Health and Life Sciences, but Scott believes the biggest growth that can be seen at Conestoga is visible area-wide.
“I think one of the real great things about this college is the expansion that has taken place with the Cambridge campus, the Guelph campus, the Waterloo campus and the Stratford campus. It’s a big college if you really think about it,” Scott said.
Not only has the school grown physically but academic advances have been made as well.
“Back in the ’90s I’m not even sure we were talking about launching degree programs. Probably not, but I think education is evolving and institutions like this need to examine pathways for students who want a blend of the hands-on learning plus the practical theory,” Scott said.
Today Conestoga offers nine four-year bachelor degree programs as well as two collaborative degrees. Not only are there more options for college students to upgrade to a degree but there are also more university students coming to Conestoga to get hands-on skills.
Through the many years Scott has been a part of the Conestoga community, there was one thing that never changed – the type of faculty. “That is something that separates our college from some others. I think we invest a lot more of our personal energy and time, getting to know the students and making ourselves available to students for those who need some extra help. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of for being a part of the team,” he said.
Scott gave credit to Tibbits for the exceptional leadership he has given to the school over the past 27 years and his attempt at always pushing forward, even in the worst of times.
“He has seen lean and mean times. He has been able to stickhandle around these issues and still build a college that is recognized as being one of the best in Canada,” he said.