Like many across the world in the past year, students enrolled in Confederation College's Community Integration through Co-operative Education (CICE) program have felt the impacts of COVID-19 but they are still striving to move forward with both their education and their future in the workforce.
The current cohort of CICE students are nearing the end of their two-year program, which gives adults with learning challenges the chance to experience college, and earn valuable work experience. Classes are scheduled to end in April and their job placements begin soon after. While in regular years the program sees students take part in three different work placements, CICE program Integration Facilitator Jenni Morrison said there's been an knock-on effect from the pandemic that has made getting students into a placement more difficult.
"Their first semester they all completed fine and then second semester came around and that's when COVID hit, so none of the students were able to do a second placement," Morrison said.
"That's been the biggest hurdle we've run into thus far. We've been very fortunate to be allowed into the college with strict regulations coming with that.”
The second and third placements have been amalgamated into one 135 hour stretch, with an extended time to complete it.
Morrison noted that much of the class has been moved online to deal with the pandemic, which helps to keep everyone safely distanced and allows students who have responsibilities beyond school to also take part without being there in person.
"We've had to learn and adapt a lot to the technology," Morrison said.
"It hasn't all been a bad thing fully. It has created a lot more independence for the students as well, but it's definitely unfortunate for the CICE program that we miss just having that direct one to one contact."
This year's cohort, made up of Andrew Yerxa, Carrie Jolicoeur and Jake Vandermeer, have proven their flexibility and adaptability to the changes that have been necessitated by the COVID pandemic. Even while missing out on some larger experiences of the CICE college program, such as planned field trips and placements that were cancelled, the students have each continued on with their schooling, which is also the first post-secondary experience they've had.
"I've done co-op placements before but not college," Yerxa explained.
Jolicoeur noted that the changes they've had to make to their classes because of COVID have made it a bit more difficult to navigate, as she has a toddler she has to provide care for while also trying to complete a college program.
"With COVID [my daughter] wasn't allowed to go to daycare, so I had her and this to do," she explained.
"Now that she's going to daycare, it's a little easier to do it at home. Transportation was really hard at first too, because people were busy, but I managed to get there before, and I would like to come back to the college part if I get my daughter back to daycare. It's been pretty good, it's been fun."
Still, Jolicoeur said she's thankful for the CICE program as it gives her a chance to attend college, which she hadn't felt was achievable due to a learning disability.
For his part, Vandermeer said taking on a college course during a pandemic "hasn't been too bad."
Each of the students have recently started their final placement, with Yerxa heading to The Bargain Shop, Jolicoeur to Community Living Fort Frances and District, and Vandermeer potentially going to either the Salvation Army on Scott Street, or Wasaw, pending a few final details. Morrison said it was a challenge for her and the students to work out placements, as the COVID-19 restrictions have led many businesses to restrict even their own employees from coming in to work, and all were thankful for the businesses they did contact who were willing to work together to accommodate the CICE students for their placements.
As for their placements, each of the CICE students noted that their placements play to their strengths and things they already enjoy, and can help open the door to more opportunities in the future.
"It's a lot of fun for me to get out in the community with a lot of different people," Yerxa said.
"I've been working with a lot of different people throughout the years, I'm comfortable with it. I've been working at Manitou Mounds too, so that's where I get all my experience from."
"I was stuck between two different things I wanted to do, the ECE program or PSW, so I've kind of gotten the best of both worlds," Jolicoeur said, though she added she's not yet sure which path she'll pursue in the future.
Vandermeer shared that a placement with Wasaw would allow him to be outside in his element, cutting wood and enjoying the outdoors, maybe even taking the time to roast marshmallows when he gets a chance.
"I can have a good time with my family, my sisters and nephews," he said.
"I am so proud of all the work and perseverance the students have shown in the last year of this program," Morrison added.
"COVID has not made it easy on any of them. I am looking forward to seeing them all finish the program successfully."
As the CICE program at Confederation College runs every two years, the next intake is scheduled for Fall 2021, and Morrison said the college will be offering a new online way for interested students to check out the college and learn a bit more about what the program has to offer, though they will have to act fast.
"I think it's going to be a bit of a harder intake this fall because I don't know if people are necessarily thinking about college at this point in the world," she said.
"We are doing an information open house for the CICE program, just trying to get the program information out there for what people need to know, virtually of course. It will be on March 3 at 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., so we're hoping we get some agencies, some parents, maybe some students who are interested in the program, just so they can learn a little bit more about what the program is and the types of supports we offer to incoming students."
For more information about the CICE program at Confederation College, check out the programs webpage at https://www.confederationcollege.ca/program/community-integration-through-co-operative-education. To register for the virtual open house visit the college's Facebook page.
Ken Kellar, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort Frances Times