“I want to be a real, approachable president, known as friendly, someone people can feel they can approach.”
That from Asima Vezina after being officially announced Monday as Algoma University’s new president and vice-chancellor, effective Oct. 23.
Vezina, in fact, was warmly greeting and embracing staff members as she met them in the university’s hallways before sitting down to an interview with SooToday Monday afternoon.
“This is exciting for me because it’s an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of students of all ages, and for our community.”
Vezina said her vision for Algoma as its newest president “will align with Algoma’s strategic plan (for 2016-2021).”
“It’s something I’m very familiar with (as an Algoma board of governors member). We had over 500 stakeholders participate in creating it and providing input into it.”
“What I love about the vision, and why it aligns so nicely with my vision of education, is that it speaks to a student-centred approach, so for me, having students at the centre of all our decision-making, that’s exciting for me.”
Vezina said the vision will be very much about transforming people at Algoma.
“When you come to Algoma University, it doesn’t matter who you are. I want you to feel welcome, I want you to feel included, I want you to feel like you’re going to be successful here and enjoy your time on our campus, whether you’re a student, a visitor or a staff member.”
“I want it to feel really special for everyone who steps on to our campus, whether that’s virtually or in person.”
That, Vezina said, includes every student, whether they be apprehensive newcomers coming from remote parts of northern Ontario, First Nations communities or abroad, or people coming from larger centres in, for example, southern Ontario, looking for a university education with a more personal touch.
Algoma has long prided itself on small class sizes where students can interact with professors on a first-name basis.
“I want them to say ‘I really mattered,’ that people believe in you, that you have something to offer to the university community.”
As for Algoma offering specialization in a certain area of study, as most universities do, Vezina said “we’ve got Anishinaabe Studies happening now, Environmental Science is another, and I think you’re going to see a real interest moving forward about really defining what that specialization is. It’s definitley on the table.”
There’s no easy way to deal with declining enrolment and staffing issues Algoma has experienced of late, but Vezina said “it’s something we’re going to pay a lot of attention to. It’s a priority for the board, for the university and for my leadership, no question.”
“I know we’re still going to face some enrolment challenges for the next year or two, but I’m very committed to stabilizing that piece, something I’m going to be putting a lot of attention on.”
“They want a president who is going to pay very close attention to enrolment management, so we’re going to think innovatively and creatively. I do see technology playing an important role here, we’ll continue to pay very close attention to international students and how we can really support our Anishinaabe students to be successful.”
Vezina is a St. Thomas, Ontario native who has lived and worked in the Sault and area for much of her life.
After university, she began teaching in Timmins and eventually became an Algoma District School Board (ADSB) superintendent of education in 2007.
Vezina was seconded to the Ministry of Education for a special assignment, working with school boards in the northeastern Ontario region, and also joined the Algoma University board of governors in 2014, briefly serving as chair.
Her father was a local veterinarian, her mother the Algoma Manor director of nursing.
With the past two Algoma presidents having been out-of-towners, does Vezina feel a local candidate is best to steer Algoma University?
“I think the experiences I bring to Algoma University, because I have that local experience, is probably beneficial.”
“The strong connections I have to the elementary and secondary school systems, I think, are important, but I think it’s always been really important to me to be a part of the community, working with mental health agencies, the Local Immigration Partnership, and some of the committees I’ve been working on helps me to understand what the region has to offer.”
“I understand the uniqueness of northern Ontario.”
Through her special assignment with the Ministry of Education, Vezina said she has also formed solid contacts at the provincial government level.
Vezina said Algoma’s Aboriginal partnerships with Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig (SKG) and the Children of Shingwauk are going to be “critical” in moving Algoma forward.
“The residential school history (at Algoma, built on the site of the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School) and experience will be a significant focus of my leadership going forward, and that has to be done in partnership. I do feel Algoma University will play a significant role in Truth and Reconciliation.”
“We do want to be seen as a national leader in delivering cross-cultural learning experiences for students. The idea is ‘what can we learn’ from all the cultures and experiences of our students, our educators, our administrators and our staff?’”
“It’s about really embracing that.”