It’s no accident: Lambton College works hard to attract new students

For many residents of Sarnia-Lambton, start talking about Lambton College and what might come to mind are thoughts of small town post-secondary education, maybe a bit of incremental growth, and not a lot happening beyond the graduation of students who choose to stay at home rather than get a degree at a larger institution.

They couldn't be more wrong.

Over the next few weeks and months, will be exploring all that this gem of an institution has become, from the skilled trades training it brings to a rethought workforce, to work-ready graduates who go into such fields as diverse as massage therapy, nursing, personal support work, culinary arts, fashion design and more.

We'll also discover how a unique relationship that some thought to be rather lofty (perhaps too lofty)—the University of Western Ontario Research Park Sarnia-Lambton campus—is poised to begin the kind of economic activity other communities anywhere would covet.

But a good place to start might be how students actually get here and that involves talking with Cindy Buchanan, Lambton's director of marketing, business development and innovation.

When it comes to developing new programs that will attract new students, Buchanan knows just where to ask what works and what doesn't.

"We spend a lot of time asking local industry and organizations what they really need," she says. "Whenever we launch a program, we're looking for employment opportunities and we wouldn't go forward without that."

In many cases, a growth area (or at least the idea for growth) has generated an expansion of facilities at the college.

Which is what happened with what was formerly a private sector hotel/motel and dining facility (the Canterbury Inn), now known as the Lambton Inn, purchased primarily as a place for students to live during the school year.

But when the restaurant to the west of it closed its doors, Lambton College found it to be a great place to train chefs and other restaurant workers, nicely dovetailing with other programs geared to the hospitality industry—an aesthetics program and massage therapy—that turned the facility into a working spa.

And because students can only eat so many gourmet meals, Creations Fine Dining opens its doors to the public, not so much competing with but rather enhancing the future ability of area restaurants to attract their own skilled workers.

But this story is not so much about the diversity of programs, but rather the process that brings them here.

"We spend a lot of time reach out for new students," says Buchanan, who calls her marketing plan "fairly aggressive." And for good reason.

"Let's face it, some of the larger colleges in larger cities don't have to go out as aggressively as we do," she adds. "They have their own demographics to draw from."

In Sarnia-Lambton, not so much.

"We have to pump outside our community," says Buchanan. "And we've been doing that in innovative ways, like high school visits."

Indeed, it may be one of the single most important and effective ways of introducing prospective students to Lambton College, says Buchanan, and especially important in reaching students by the province-wide Feb. 1 deadline for applying to post-secondary institutions.

The process Buchanan and her staff and volunteers is both extensive and complex.

And early. "What starts in the spring doesn't end until December and it's quite something. It has to come together at the same time."

Buchanan is talking about the "road shows" that bring Lambton College to 12 high schools some locally but others further and further away from the area.

"We take over the gym, and it's a big deal for students at the grade 10 level, when they're starting to give serious thought as to what path they'll take. But all grades right up to 12 get to come."

Lambton College participates in these outreach programs with other colleges and Lambton takes its turn along with its sister colleges in the provincial system in hosting a fall open house where schools get to make their pitch.

Lambton's is in October, but Buchanan is sure to make the other dates a priority as well.

That outreach has changed over the years, but so has the age of the students Buchanan and her team is reaching.

"We're spending a great deal of attention on mature students," says Buchanan, pointing out that where the average used to be 60/40 (with high school students making up the majority), the split is now 50/50.

"It's a growing market, particularly in our community," adds Buchanan. Enrollment at the college in 2010 reached 3,044.

Next in our series: the internationalization of the Lambton College campus.

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