A lifetime spent promoting lifelong learning
By Cynthia Lee
When Judith Potter began her mandate as Dean of Continuing Education last September, she came to McGill with a wealth of experience in the field. A chemist by trade, Potter became interested in adult education during a formative period working with First Nations people while at Brandon University in Manitoba. Potter came to McGill after a 20-year stint at the University of New Brunswick where she worked largely in Continuing Education. Recently, Potter sat down with the McGill Reporter to talk about the Centre, the McGill Learning in Retirement (MLIR) program and her philosophy of lifelong learning.
How important is learning throughout one’s life?
I think learning is an absolutely critical part of our fibre. Clearly there’s a lot of evidence and literature that continuing to learn keeps us active, young and healthy. So there’s that part of it, the personal development part.
But there’s also a vital part related to social and economic development. We live in a world that is rapidly changing. Knowledge is changing and in order to remain competitive as a country and society we must continue to grapple with issues, emerging skills, and new technologies. It’s such an integral part of our lives.
Was there a particular experience that turned you onto adult education?
After establishing a career in chemistry at U of T, I started working at the Mature Student Centre of Brandon University in a role related to my science background. BU had a real commitment to programs for First Nations learners and I became involved in aboriginal education – visiting rural communities to meet with potential students and providing academic support for these students once they made the decision to come to university. I became very aware of the relative privilege of my world and of the courage that mature students show and the barriers they face in trying to find a better future for themselves and their families through learning. Not everyone was able to succeed, of course. But there were so many remarkable people who found new intellectual, as well as very practical, worlds that they could never have imagined. I became fascinated by adult learning and the power that it holds.
Is there a typical Cont Ed Student?
It’s certainly not one size fits all, and it can be many things to many people. We have a seniors group here called McGill Learning in Retirement (MLIR) and for those 800 members it is such an enriching experience and keeps them alive and growing, and that is fantastic and valid.
On the other hand, we also have the single mom who finds herself needing to upgrade her job skills to feed her children. For her, learning has another dimension. Enriched learning has many facets.
What are some of the unique classes offered in Cont Ed at McGill?
I have to say our focus on business and second languages are common across the country – but our ability to offer credit and diplomas in those areas is unique. Also our Translation offerings; and the fact that we have programming in English, French and Spanish, is noteworthy.
Do you get a lot of foreign students?
An interesting change here at Cont Ed is the high number of people for who are enrolled for English and French classes, close to 50 per cent of our students. As a result, we deal with immigration issues and help people settle in by developing their skills and abilities. Many of our students come to us with degrees from abroad and enroll in a specialized program in Management or Human Resources so they can better integrate. They use our Centre as a “pathway.” We create pathways and laddering opportunities for people who come here with wonderful experience (education and work) but who may have gaps that prevent them to fit into our society.
How do you see the role of Cont Ed and the rest of the McGill community?
I see it as building bridges. More and more, we’re seeing the whole world of post-secondary education and accountability as more important. Governments and taxpayers want to see their tax dollars’ impact on community. McGill has a huge impact in Quebec and Canada. So our job here is to make that really visible.
When we see people graduate and go on to take positions in Montreal industry and contribute, that really has an impact. Building those linkages is a real the way to contribute.
In terms of the teaching and learning spectrum, I see us as having a significant and special role in helping to bring the intellectual wealth of McGill to a broader community. Our role is in accessibility and helping the other academic units. Graduates in Engineering, Nursing, Management and Law – all of those professions now have requirements in continuing education to remain in their professions. We can be a vehicle to work in those faculties.
How do you see Cont. Ed in the future?
I would like to see us increase our work with the faculties, I think McGill is such an intellectual powerhouse and we should be contributing to the whole “partners for life” idea. We want people to continue to learn and tap into the richness our University has to offer.
The other thing is there a real need is to reach out to the community and break down the perception that we’re a bit isolated. In my view we should be reaching out and making connections with those communities whether it is business or the arts. We have to say: “How can we help you?” “What are the learning needs in your sector?” “How can we help to solve the issues you are dealing with?”
How has the global economic crisis affected enrolment here?
Well typically, in these times, applications go up. And we certainly have found that our graduate level classes have been in greater demand.
Is there a secret life of a Dean?
Oh dear… I think there is a kind of loneliness…you have to take the broad view, and be familiar with national and international trends so you can’t always relate directly with people you work with who are very focused on their world. So it means you sometimes have to have a different perspective.
What is the best part of your job?
Laughing] Having my photograph taken.
Judith Potter’s first job
I worked in a laundry at a senior citizen’s home washing and ironing for the residents. It taught me many things. By delivering the laundry to the seniors I got to know them as people. That striking part of it to me was getting over fears we have of “others” and of age.