The phrase “going back to school” is exciting on many levels for Okanagan College Vernon graduate Toby Griffin.
When she took the leap of returning to college at age 48 to pursue her dream of becoming a certified education assistant, Griffin never could have imagined she’d finish off her studies during a pandemic – nor could she have anticipated how much this experience would inspire her and her fellow students to support learners in new and innovative ways.
Education Assistants (EAs) are trained to help students be successful in meeting their educational goals. Griffin, from Lumby, is one of a class of 27 new OC EA graduates who took time recently to show their appreciation to their instructor for helping them meet theirs.
On Friday, June 19, grads from the EA program at the college’s Vernon campus came together – in a physically distant way – to mark the completion of their program.
They held an informal graduation send-off at an acreage in the Vernon area belonging to the family of student Karissa Goodrum. Griffin gave the student address.
“I’m a proud mother of five children and I’ve always been passionate about supporting young learners,” said Griffin. “I’ve been a Montessori pre-school teacher, a basketball coach, and held others roles in the community. It felt like it was my time to be able to go back to school to do this, to continue putting my love for education and supporting learners to work, and, hopefully, to inspire others around me to pursue their dreams.”
Griffin notes that while the pandemic presented challenges – such as the rapid shift to online learning in March – it brought students together and offered up lessons that will be invaluable for them going forward.
“Now that we’re finished, I can definitely say I appreciate the experience so much more and took so much more away from it,” she said. “I have a much deeper appreciation for children in the school system who have exceptionalities. I think we’ll all be better EAs for experiencing what we went through as learners during the pandemic.
“We really built a bond as a team, and I know we’ll collaborate for a lifetime as professionals. It was very special that we could take this opportunity to have a kind of grad ceremony, to celebrate each other for making it through, for supporting one another, and to reflect on what we’ve all accomplished.”
Michelle Howe, the class’s lead instructor, also relished the opportunity to celebrate her students’ achievements.
“This truly was a special group of students,” she said. “They faced the challenges that came their way, transitioned to online learning without missing a beat and supported each other in ways that left me so inspired and amazed.”
Following the theme of celebrating diversity and inclusion, a topic that occupied many of their virtual discussions in recent weeks, the students swapped grad gowns for funky dresses at the celebration – giving them all a chance to showcase their individuality and perspectives.
“We talked a lot in recent weeks about the value of diversity and inclusion, and what it means for the future of the classroom and how we can all be champions and allies,” said Howe. “I was incredibly inspired by the way they gravitated to that topic and carried it forward in so many ways.”
Christy Gelz, program coordinator for Continuing Studies at Okanagan College, says the students’ gratitude toward each other and their instructor was evident throughout the night – and was perhaps best exemplified in a kind gesture.
“The students dropped off gifts and cards at Michelle’s house to show just how much they appreciated the way she went above and beyond in getting them through the program during a semester nobody could have ever anticipated would turn out as it did,” said Gelz.
The gesture was deeply appreciated by Howe, who looks forward with interest to see what her students will accomplish as they step out into the new and ever-changing world of education in the COVID era.
“I look forward to seeing what they will all do in future when they step back into their next classroom, working with students,” said Howe. “They are going to be a phenomenal group of EAs.”
Education Assistants are in high demand across the province.
The college offers its EA Certificate program in Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton, Salmon Arm and Revelstoke.
Over the past five years, the college has sent more than 700 EA graduates out into the world.