Patti France, President, St. Clair College

Patti France’s postsecondary education journey began at St. Clair College, where she started part-time working in the Registrar’s Office.  Little did she know that this initial clerical role would set the stage for a career marked by innovation and a commitment to the ever-evolving landscape of education.  “The Registrar’s Office, in a way, introduces you to almost all of the College’s various bureaucracies, everything from academic grading to information processing to student financial record-keeping,” shares Patti France.

France’s career ascent mirrored her exposure to the College’s various departments.  She transitioned seamlessly from academic grading to information processing and student financial record-keeping, wearing the hats of both supervisor and trouble-shooter.  Her gaze spanned every sector of the institution – registration, information technology, academics, human resources, facilities management and finance.  France says, “My inspiration has always been that I’ve been fascinated by all of it, by its interconnections, and how it all exists – and how it all must function ideally – in order to serve our students properly.”

Then, why the interest in the postsecondary level of education? France, with a smile that echoes years of diverse experiences, points out, “My own multi-faceted career path of constantly having to learn and master new departmental methods and systems meant that I rapidly came to appreciate the concept of life-long learning.  That led, naturally, to the pursuit of my university degree in Adult Education.”

France’s impactful career lies in modernization.  From her early days as a full-timer, she spearheaded the conversion of the College’s systems from on-paper to computerized formats.  “As anyone who went through the “computer revolution” would tell you, that was an exciting era when you had to both develop new systems and then teach – convince – veteran employees to use them,” recounts France.  Yet, this experience became the impetus for France’s enduring commitment to fostering modernization in various realms.

“Educational institutions must keep pace, even strive to be ahead of progress in the world,” France asserts passionately.  For France, this means not just keeping up but pioneering milestones: new buildings, state-of-the-art labs and clinics and innovative programs.  These, she believes, are not just exciting developments; they are essential for preparing graduates for the opportunities that await them in the dynamic world beyond academia.

Nurturing Excellence Through Generalist Leadership

France’s professional journey at St. Clair College was marked by a unique combination of expertise in Information Technology and a steadfast commitment to being a “generalist.”  From registration to human resources and finance to academics, she managed and significantly contributed to each facet of the institution as a member of faculty, support staff and administration.  “In fact, I’m one of the few people at the College to have been, at one time or another, a member of all three of our employment sectors: faculty, support staff and administration,” recounts France.

From registration to information technology, academics to human resources, facilities management to finance, France embraced the role of a generalist.  In her eyes, being a generalist was not just a professional trait; it was a valuable asset.  In a world increasingly defined by specialization, she saw the worth in having someone who could swiftly comprehend and elucidate the wide-ranging ramifications of a policy initiative or a project proposal.

Upon assuming the presidency, France embarked on a mission to ensure quality across all facets of the institution, be it bureaucratic or academic, in a quantifiable and demonstrable manner.  This commitment manifested in the steady improvements in graduate employment and student satisfaction rates, evident in the now discontinued Key Performance Indicator surveying by provincial governments.  St. Clair College, under her leadership, consistently found itself among the “top five” in various quality categories.

However, France sought not just recognition but a more scientific validation of St. Clair’s commitment to excellence.  Several years of collective effort across all departments culminated in the development and implementation of policies and best practices.  In 2021, the institution received an unblemished, comprehensive Quality Audit from the Ontario College Quality Assurance Service.  “The day that glowing report came across my desk was, in a way, my proudest day as a St. Clair employee because it proved what I’d always known: that we were an exceptional institution delivering an unparalleled quality of education,” proudly shares France.

Creating a Global Hub of Education and Innovation

St. Clair College, located in the heart of Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent, provides a diverse and welcoming environment for international students.  “We are well equipped to welcome international students from almost every corner of the globe, where they can find a connection to their homeland,” says France.  In fact, the strength embedded in the cultural mosaic of Southwestern Ontario makes it an ideal home for international scholars seeking a connection to their roots.

The College has eight academic schools (Information Technology, Business, Health Sciences, Nursing, Community Studies, Skilled Trades and Apprenticeships, Engineering Technologies, and Media, Art and Design) that offer over 100 programs.  It is committed to providing practical, in-demand employment skills through work-integrated learning components.  France states, “Like all Canadian postsecondary schools, we’ve been thrilled to welcome international students to our classrooms during the past half-dozen years when our enrolment of global scholars has climbed tenfold from the mid-hundreds to the mid-thousands.”

Among the cutting-edge offerings, the College takes pride in its focus on the manufacturing and maintenance of electric vehicles – a program poised to resonate with aspiring engineers worldwide.  The anticipation is high as St. Clair expects an increasing influx of international students with an engineering mindset to explore this groundbreaking program in the coming years.  St. Clair College has also established a presence at three campuses in Toronto, further expanding its influence across Ontario.

Apart from academics, St. Clair empowers students through its Peer Tutors program.  France explains, “High-performing students in each program are hired by our Student Services to act as either one-on-one tutors and/or to hold regular supplemental workshops for groups of students who might be having difficulty with a particular concept or course.”  This approach recognizes the effectiveness of students tutoring their peers and goes beyond traditional teaching methods.  “Our professors, in class, certainly offer frequent reviews and remedial assistance, but there is something extremely and uniquely effective about students tutoring their fellow students,” assures France.

As the President of St. Clair College, France has also left an indelible mark on the Canadian college system, steering it towards a unique blend of hands-on, job-ready practicality in its curriculum.  Unlike traditional academic institutions, the focus here is on “real world” skills, making it a standout choice for students seeking tangible career preparation.

One distinctive aspect of the Canadian college system is the majority of faculty members are chosen not just for their academic credentials but primarily for their professional expertise and experience.  “We have a “train the teacher” program to give new employees all of the skills and mentorship that they need to function in the classroom so that they can translate all of that personal experience into the curriculum,” France.

St. Clair College’s professors, with backgrounds deeply rooted in the industries they serve, constantly engage with businesses and services related to their programs.  This continuous interaction ensures that St. Clair College and its graduates remain in sync with the evolving needs of prospective employers, creating a dynamic synergy between education and industry.

A Catalyst for Community Engagement

Beyond the corridors of St. Clair College, France’s influence extends into the heart of Windsor-Essex, a testament to her commitment to community well-being and her belief that education should be a force for positive change.  “My long-standing involvement with Connecting Windsor-Essex arose due to my background in I.T., including my times as the College’s Chief Information Officer,” says France.  It showcases her dedication to ensuring efficient internet and communication services for all citizens, with a special emphasis on the needs of students.  This commitment became especially crucial during the pandemic when the College had to swiftly transition its curriculum to online delivery.

France’s role on the hospital’s board mirrors her passion for healthcare education.  With a significant number of Nursing and Health Sciences students destined for roles in the local medical system, including the hospital, France’s engagement takes on a personal and professional dimension.  The ongoing development of a new hospital in the area adds an extra layer of excitement to her involvement.

Notably, St. Clair College, under France’s leadership, has become a beacon for partnership opportunities.  “If a local charity or agency, or a fellow educational institution, comes to us with an idea for a project or program that we can assist with, we’ll jump at it,” says France.  What sets these partnerships apart is the decentralized nature of connections, often initiated by student councils or alumni associations.  These groups, driven by a philosophy of community outreach, contribute not just financially but also with valuable man-hours to local organizations and charities.

France explains, “I often remark that “community college” may not actually be part of our official corporate name, but it certainly is part of our philosophy: we’re here to help the community in any way that we can.”  As France often notes, the community can expect assistance from St. Clair College “because that’s what Saints do” — a testament to the institution’s commitment to being not just an educational hub but a catalyst for positive change in the community.

Architect of Change

Among France’s notable endeavors has been the ongoing construction of a Welcome Centre at the main campus.  This project, a culmination of her presidency wish list, seeks to streamline and centralize essential student services that were previously scattered across the campus.  This Welcome Centre, scheduled to open shortly before her retirement in mid-2024, reflects her commitment to enhancing the student experience.  “I’m hoping that, shortly before my retirement takes effect, we’ll be cutting the ribbon to open that much needed and long overdue Welcome Centre,” shares France.

Yet, amidst her accomplishments, one of the most challenging tests of leadership came during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In a remarkable seven days, St. Clair College pivoted swiftly, transitioning all lessons to an online format and implementing remote connectivity for teachers and students.  This ensured that classes resumed seamlessly without missing a beat.  France claims, “We were one of the first – and only – Ontario postsecondary institutions to resume in-person instruction with the pandemic still taking place, using rigid testing and social-distancing procedures approved by both the provincial government and the local public health unit.”

Navigating the Storm

In the annals of education, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as an unprecedented crisis, challenging institutions in ways unimaginable for several decades.  For Patti France and St. Clair College, the past years were a testament to resilience, adaptability and an unwavering commitment to education in the face of uncertainty.  “We were constantly pivoting for at least a year, trying to deliver curriculum in a new, novel and untested way, having no idea of whether students would even continue to pursue their educations or just go into hibernation, and then, when we re-opened when the pandemic was still occurring, having to physically redesign almost all of our buildings to ensure social distancing,” recounts France.  Yet, St. Clair College, driven by the conscientiousness of its staff and the enthusiasm of its students, defied the odds.

Enrollment, even in the realm of remote-learning international programs, remained stable throughout the pandemic.  The College not only survived but thrived, emerging from the crisis stronger and more resilient than ever.  The tale of St. Clair College during the pandemic is not just one of survival; it’s a narrative of thriving and evolving in the face of adversity.

As France reflects on the transformative period, she envisions an even deeper connection between institutes of higher learning and their communities.  “The “ivory tower” image of a college is a thing of the past if it ever was true,” states France.  The evolving relationship is evident in the institution’s direct connection with outside stakeholders, emphasizing experiential learning and increased involvement in formal research and development projects.

St. Clair College’s foray into cooperative Research and Development is a clear indication that the institution’s expertise and energy are valuable community assets readily available for collaborative endeavors.  As the educational landscape continues to transform, the College stands not just as a beacon of academic excellence but as a dynamic force, actively contributing to the economic, social and health-related well-being of its community.

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