Bringing the Community Back into the Equation

Vancouver Community College’s president, Kathy Kinloch, employs a strategic relationship-building approach that connects students with the city

President Kathy Kinloch.
President Kathy Kinloch.

As the only community college in Downtown Vancouver, Vancouver Community College (VCC) is uniquely sited to serve the city’s diverse, urban population. Its students, whose wide range of ages averages out to 32, come from more than 40 countries and speak 30 different languages, and 70 percent of them are women. And as a former COO, dean, and principal, VCC president Kathy Kinloch has the leadership experience needed to guide the school as it continues to embrace these many voices.

“It’s a unique, special position to be in, and we never take it for granted,” Kinloch says. “It allows us to offer access and developmental programs to the students who need them the most. In a previous role, collaborating with postsecondary partners and reaching out to key players made a huge difference to the organization. I bring that more strategic approach with me to VCC.”

5 Questions
with Kathy Kinloch


1. Is there a technology, trend, or idea that’s driving VCC forward?
The most relevant trends for VCC are the increasing numbers of newcomers to Canada, for whom VCC is often the ideal educational solution. The move towards real-world, job-ready skills that meet labour market needs is exactly the kind of education we offer.

2. How do you innovate on a day-to-day basis?
Relationships and collaboration, both within and beyond the classroom. We are increasingly leveraging our relationships with industry leaders and community organizations to enhance the traditional on-campus experience.

3. How has the notion of innovation changed in the past five years?
Today, more than ever, innovation has to be self-funded. Like many organizations, VCC is working within a finite budget, and we need to ensure we can engage in new revenue opportunities while meeting the needs of our students.  

4. How do you cultivate innovation among your students?
We know that higher education has the potential to change lives. Our role at VCC is to provide accessible and affordable education while making sure our students have the support they need to lead positive change.

5. How do you encourage innovation without breaking the bank?
Many VCC programs are intended to provide a pathway to employment. Our students are highly engaged in student-run operations within the college, and community members have shown they are eager to purchase goods and services provided through student innovation. We have two highly successful restaurants staffed by students, we offer salon and spa services provided by students, and we hold an annual jewelry sale showcasing students’ work.

The way Kinloch explains it, such tactical thinking brings focus to what needs to be done; it’s a vital way of filtering out the noise to find the “key threads” that will move the college forward toward impactful, innovative solutions. “Applying this leadership approach is vital to any organization, including VCC, as it moves forward,” the president says. “This approach should include naming the changes, delivering, resourcing, and measuring along the way. ”

Under Kinloch’s watch, VCC has developed and enhanced existing partnerships with Downtown Eastside and East Vancouver community groups, organizations, and businesses. This means that once students obtain the education and training they had set out to receive at VCC, they then have built-in relationships in their own communities—relationships that can further or sometimes even jump-start their careers.

“In terms of innovation, our real strength comes from strong applied partnerships and collaborative ventures,” Kinloch says. “Our goal is always to help our students and provide them with meaningful applied work and learning experiences. We’re able to do that by partnering with others who provide a different point of view, new thoughts, and new opportunities for learning—that’s applied innovation. For VCC faculty and staff, this commitment calls for open dialogue and actively seeking out new experiences for our students with our industry and community partners. It’s also about staying on top of the pulse of the community.”

Connecting the college and the local community has resulted in some pretty interesting initiatives, including VCC’s increasingly popular Christmas in January, an annual event that has the college’s many culinary students whipping up a feast for those in need. In January 2013, the culinary students, staff, and volunteers served lunch to more 1,700 people, using food donated by local stores and organizations.

“There are many people in need in Downtown Vancouver, and this was our way of acknowledging that,” Kinloch says. “Everyone wants to help during the holiday season, but what happens after the festivities die down? The community helps us, and we recognize the importance of giving back.”

Kinloch has managed to make major strides in just three years at VCC, and one of her biggest actions yet has been the implementation of the school’s student-focused Strategic Plan. When she arrived in 2010, the college didn’t have a plan, but with the support of faculty, staff, and students, she obtained feedback from more than 2,000 external and internal college voices. The feedback helped shape VCC’s 2011–2014 goals with a better understanding of what its students need to succeed.

“Everything we do moving forward will be with the students’ voice in mind,” Kinloch says. “We want to be known as a student-centred college in an urban centre. I want to continue advancing the role of VCC in the postsecondary system in our community so that we continue to remain relevant and meet all of our students’ education and career needs.”