A gathering in support of post-secondary education in rural Alberta
By Cari Kilmartin and Rajan Rathnavalu
The early part of Aug. 22 engendered weather warnings and cloud watching, but the sun did eventually shine on Jubilee Park in Camrose, as community members equipped with masks, lawn chairs, and a willingness to listen showed up to support the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus and rural Alberta post-secondary education.
The event, put on by the “Friends of Augustana,” was organized out of concern for the campus’ future. The U of A as a whole received an 11 percent cut to its funding in 2020 following provincial budget cuts; added to a 6.9 percent cut from the year before, the result is a budget reduction of $110.3 million per year.
More than simply concern for the campus itself, the event was rooted in the interconnectedness between institution and community; the health of local businesses like Newo Global Energy, not to mention the well-being of employees/citizens, is closely intertwined with that of an institution such as Augustana in the Camrose ecosystem.
Over the course of our four-year existence, Newo has hired twelve Augustana students and graduates for summer positions and (ongoing) full-time administration. We have been fortunate to have access to a steady stream of compassionate, critical thinkers to help us embody a vision of putting reconciliation into action.
The first inklings of Newo Global Energy began in the Spirit of the Land class started by professor Dittmar Mundel and Newo founder Rajan Rathnavalu, then a student. Leaving the classroom behind, students gathered in and around rural Camrose, taking part in a learning experience characterized by community and spiritual self-reflection alongside economic and ecological considerations.
Founded as Camrose Lutheran College in 1910, Augustana became a faculty of the U of A in 2004. It draws Indigenous, Canadian and international students from around the world. Throughout the day on Aug. 22, the crowd heard numerous stories of former students returning to Camrose because of what Augustana taught them and what the city continues to offer.
City councillor Agnes Hoveland characterized Augustana as a leading institution that creates leaders on the world, national, and local stages.
“The city and Augustana are, and have always been, attached at the hip — for 110 years,” she said, stressing the economic benefit — 70 million dollars annually — to the community.
Richard Bruneau, a local business owner (Fox & Fable) and former student, told the crowd Augustana is an integral part of community health, enabling growth and encouraging critical thinking.
“Sure, the liberal arts and sciences education of Augustana absolutely helped me get jobs, but, more importantly, it empowered me to find meaning and build meaning in partnership with other people, and to find humility in looking outwardly at the world,” he said.
In many ways, Newo was inspired to be a practical, postgraduate application for many of the principles taught in the Spirit of the Land course, and to explore the question: How does one apply compassionate, critical thinking to the business world while making best use of humanity’s diverse gifts?
In fulfilling this aim, Newo draws vision and inspiration from the Cree understanding of “wahkohtowin” that recognizes our connection to “all our relations.” On the Augustana campus, the Wahkohtowin Lodge serves as a centre for these teachings and symbolizes a common commitment to care for the world around us.
In closing the Saturday gathering, Rathnavalu acknowledged that Augustana is not a perfect institution, but a precious legacy that needs to be renewed with each generation. The Wahkohtowin Lodge is not a destination, but a promise that there is still much work that needs to be done.
The value of a liberal arts education is that it fosters the compassion and insight that enables us to fulfil this care for one another. The danger in degrading these institutions of higher learning is that we not only lose the imaginative and critical thinking that enables us to be productive in our work but also, more vitally, the compassionate connections that inspire us to make our work meaningful.