Last summer Carolyn Campbell became the President and CEO of NorQuest College, and she couldn’t be happier about it. For Campbell it is the culmination of the many paths she traveled with intention – paths that, while all led to the same destination, couldn’t be more different; paths of art, politics, and education.
Campbell’s grandmother was a model for Frederick Horsman Varley, an artist in Canada’s famous Group of 7. Campbell started drawing and painting at age four. Her grandmother, who had ties and influence in the art world, taught her how to draw portraits. This is where her love of art and her journey as an artist began. As she went through school and college, she unlocked her love of learning. Campbell discovered that she had a voracious appetite for all things education, for herself and making it accessible and enjoyable for others. This led to five years with MacEwan University (then MacEwan College) followed by 15 years as Associate Dean of Executive Education at the University of Alberta (U of A) School of Business – a truly formative time in her educational career.
“The U of A was really doing a great job of promoting professional development and were so connected to both industry and entrepreneurs,” says Campbell. “That was where the fire lit for me between education, leadership development, and personal lifelong learning.” At the U of A she also taught art, leadership and governance.
When the Government of Alberta was looking to appoint a new Deputy Minister of Culture and Tourism, Campbell got the call, launching her foray into public service at the provincial level.
“Out of the blue the government tapped me on the shoulder. I worked for the province for three months when we had that historic shift in government,” she references the brief switch from a Conservative government to NDP. “What an exemplary experience to be a part of that kind of learning in how you can shift strategy and policy. I learned a lot…” she pauses, “but, I was missing post secondary.”
Some adults enroll in local evening or weekend courses to fill that education itch, but Campbell, in her signature style, took a different track.
“Well,” I thought, “I’ll start with Oxford.”
As the lengthy application process for Oxford University began, Campbell also moved over to the City of Edmonton to create a new department focused on positioning Edmonton in the global market as the ideal post-secondary location.
“That was really, really fun!” she exclaims. “I worked with several other departments at the city as well, and I learned a lot. I am very grateful for my time working in multiple levels of government to learn the inner workings and building relationships. It was a rewarding experience that has always stayed with me.”
Then Oxford called. Not only had Campbell’s application for PhD studies been accepted, making her an official student of the historic and renowned University, she was also asked to teach the executive programming course.
“This was beyond bucket list!” Campbell shares, but life was far from done with throwing ideal opportunities her way. In the midst of her time at Oxford, an institution near and dear to her heart came calling as NorQuest contacted her about becoming the President and CEO of the college.
So, what was she to do? Here she was doing remote PhD studies at Oxford while teaching university classes. Where could she have the most impact? Was it at her hometown community college?
The answer was a resounding “yes.” Campbell didn’t even hesitate.
“The presidency of NorQuest College! This is my dream job. I thought, well, it’s going to be hard because I’m still working on my PhD, but I can’t imagine a more exciting opportunity to keep learning. I’m a lifelong learner. Leading an institution that is positioning itself to be a real partner with Albertans in ‘building back better’ is important to me.”
Just like that, all the paths she had travelled converged. The passion for art, politics, and education all came together when Campbell said yes to NorQuest College.
She explains, “When I applied for my PhD, I set my subject as the governance of art and the repatriation of Indigenous art. The topics include how organizations move through crises and major periods of pressure and change to come out the other side of a definable era with a clear identity. The definitive eras of an artist, or their series, are not unlike the definitive eras in business. Picasso has a blue period and a cubic period. What happened between those periods to make them so definable? I think about that a lot.
“Art is related to business and educational organizations. As they move into a new area, is there a moment of breakthrough? I believe that it is through crisis and pressure – when you go through one period to the next – that you have a breakthrough. To me, this is exciting as an artist and a leader.”
Right now, Alberta is coming through crisis due to many factors, including economic pressure, low energy prices, climate change, and, of course, COVID-19. Campbell has suited up to be on the front lines with those actively involved in rebuilding and rebranding the province; something she knows she can do thanks to NorQuest’s longstanding history of inclusive education and focus on the industries that need skilled labour the most.
“NorQuest has purpose about transforming lives,” says Campbell. “When you transform a life, then you transform communities, the world, and the future. NorQuest is a place for belonging, creating a community, and making a difference.”
That difference is sorely needed right now for the province and the scores of people looking to upgrade and re-enter the workforce, sometimes training for different industries since their original positions collapsed under the strain of COVID. NorQuest is on it.
“I have had meetings with our Workforce Advisory Committee, including talks on strategic planning and the panel telling us where they think the impactful areas of attention should be. NorQuest is delivering the programs that get people working. We are getting this province working again.
“Currently, 40 per cent of our training is in healthcare and I’m excited about what is happening academically. AI, global learning, social access, energy management, open studies… The practical studies we are doing at NorQuest are going to blow the doors open in what we can share with industry!”
As excited as she is about what NorQuest has to offer, Campbell knows the journey takes one step at a time.
“The first step,” she shares, “is in providing solutions for the economic recovery. We are looking to expand on programing and are expanding our apprentice-style programs. Currently we have 15 new programs in the hopper. We have also put new administration strategies in place, like removing caps on courses and expanding our offerings. NorQuest will do whatever we can to remove barriers to access for students.”
A big part of removing those barriers is credited to the 1000 Women A Million Possibilities initiative. Since 2010, 1000 Women donors have raised more than $3 million to support access to education for NorQuest’s students.
“This movement is an example of what can be done with a big vision,” praises Campbell. “It’s a light to ensure we get as many people as possible educated, trained, and learning. The 1000 Women movement has done so much for NorQuest over so many years, and we cannot thank them enough.”
She continues, “NorQuest is committed to engaging communities. As we emerge through this crisis period, we know we face challenges. That is why we remain proactive in reaching out to government, communities, and other post secondaries to work together on recovery in Edmonton and beyond. NorQuest is a convener of ideas, of people, of thought leadership. We transform lives. We are a place of belonging. No matter who you are: a student, community member, industry leader, small business, employer – you can see and find yourself here.”
Campbell couldn’t be happier to take on this role, not just for what it is, but where it is too.
“I have been saying for years that Edmonton is a post-secondary town. There is so much generation of ideas in this city; it truly is a place for thought leadership. Our post-secondary institutions are working hard to be a complete community and an intricate part of the fabric of the city. The conversations, the culture, the science – all this and more makes Edmonton a terrific place to live. We are so lucky! We have everything you want from a mega city right here.”
While the artist has been balancing creating and showcasing beautiful work, continuing her studies at Oxford, pursuing the unification and showcasing of the city’s post-secondary landscape, and – most importantly – leading NorQuest College into a future where its students help with Alberta’s next evolution, she has achieved yet another important milestone.
“My husband and I have just become empty nesters!”
Campbell’s many paths include the journey of motherhood. She and her husband have twin sons.
“We are suffering!” she says of the bittersweet reality of her sons growing up and moving out. “When you have twins, everything happens all at once with your children. We are so proud of them. One is doing his masters in statistical learning and the other has a job in the area of western development education.”
With the paths of her journey merging into one, she has a moment to stop taking steps and look back to see how far she has come.
“Getting that acceptance letter to Oxford – that was such a moment. What went into that application and that process was much harder than anything else I’ve been through. The acceptance was a meaningful recognition. Then, when I came to NorQuest, the board was so incredibly welcoming. They really went the extra mile in making me feel accepted even though NorQuest, like all post-secondary schools, is dealing with the impact of COVID. And the city! I’ve been very impressed with relationships I have built and see in Edmonton. Here I have found people to celebrate life with, talk about issues with, and I hope I’m there for them as much as they have been there for me. There is something about the community in Edmonton that cannot be replicated. I am just so incredibly grateful for it all.”
Now that you know Carolyn Campbell a little better, you should know that her pausing to reflect on how far she has come in no way slows her down for what’s ahead. The path forward is clear and she walks it with confidence.
“Let’s get started on rebuilding our economy. Let’s lift up people and our community during these challenging times. NorQuest College can give you opportunities that last a lifetime. Let’s ramp it up! We are working on our next strategy. We are working on maximizing our research through reimagining higher education. We will better engage donors to show the impact of their support. We want to build on our branding and culture in-house. We are looking at the digital innovations that will power Alberta’s future. That is what I’m spending my time on right now. It’s big. It’s exciting. And it’s so beautiful.”
With that, she takes her next step. The journey is far from done.