Colleen Miller remembers the feeling well. It was June 29, 1998, the day she, former Wilfrid Laurier University president and vice-chancellor Bob Rosehart and then City of Brantford Mayor Chris Friel gathered to sign a declaration of intent that would bring a Laurier campus to Brantford.
At the time, Miller served as chair of the Grand Valley Educational Society, an organization that worked tirelessly toward the goal of attracting a university to the city.
"I was ecstatic," recalls Miller. "We were looking at a lot of factories closing, we were looking at our whole industrial base changing, we were looking at the fact that people were sending their kids out of the community to go to university. We were missing out on opportunity."
The Grand Valley Educational Society had set specific goals for a university in Brantford. Among them was to have 1,000 students at an institution that offered a full range of student services within 10 years.
As Laurier's Brantford campus marks its 20th anniversary during the 2019-2020 academic year, the university has surpassed those goals and exceeded expectations. Nearly 3,000 students are currently enrolled at Laurier's Brantford campus, which offers more than 20 programs within four faculties. The university now occupies more than 17 buildings in Brantford's downtown core and has become an integral part of the community.
Laurier's Brantford campus is also widely recognized for its innovative academic offerings. Programs including Game Design and Development and User Experience Design have been added during recent years, while long-standing programs including Human Rights and Human Diversity, Criminology and Journalism have flourished.
The road to a thriving Brantford campus wasn't easy. When the doors opened to its first students in September 1999, it was difficult for many to see how a one-building campus located in a struggling downtown core could survive.
Planning for the Brantford campus moved quickly following Rosehart, Miller and Friel signing the declaration of intent, with Laurier aiming to have the campus up and running in less than a year.
Holly Cox, currently manager of Laurier's Centre for Public Safety and Well-Being, was the first employee at the Brantford campus. When she was hired to help recruit students from the Brantford area, the Carnegie Building – the campus' only building at the time — was under renovation and programs that would be offered had yet to be approved.
“We worked hard to attract students to the campus," says Cox. "In the beginning, it was a daunting task.”
Laurier offered a $1,000 pioneer scholarship to students interested in studying in Brantford. In total, 39 students enrolled and became the first class at the Brantford campus.
The students were welcomed to the one-building campus by its two faculty members – Gary Warrick and Peter Farrugia – and three staff members, including Cox. She says the camaraderie between employees and the positive attitude shared by pioneering students helped the campus grow.
Jessica Rypma (BA ’04) was among the earliest students at the Brantford campus, beginning her studies in 2000. After graduation from Laurier, she earned a Bachelor of Education, taught English as a second Language in Korea and eventually returned to live in Brantford. She currently works as an elementary school teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board.
“Students really wanted to establish Laurier’s Brantford campus as a unique place and leave their mark by creating something special,” says Rypma. “At times, being at a brand-new campus was a challenge since it was so much smaller back then. But the staff in those early years were so happy to be there and poured their hearts into the campus and its establishment and growth. And the students were the same.”
Contemporary Studies was the first program offered at Laurier's Brantford campus and, although it doesn’t exist today, the program's focus on a modern and interdisciplinary approach to teaching the humanities continues to be the foundation of many Brantford campus programs.
“A lot of the ideals that we had in Contemporary Studies are still apparent," says Kathryn Carter, acting dean of Liberal Arts and a long-time faculty member at the Brantford campus. "The idea is about creating citizens for the 21st century."
Innovative and in-demand programs including Business Technology Management, Digital Media and Journalism, and Social Work complement more traditional liberal arts subjects.
“Our programs require students to engage in both learning for its own sake as well as learning for definite career goals," says Heidi Northwood, senior executive officer of Laurier's Brantford campus. "Laurier's campus in Brantford has intentionally offered programs in relevant, integrated liberal and applied arts that provide a balanced blend of theoretical learning and hands-on skills."
Carter, who developed the Game Design program, says faculty and staff at the Brantford campus continue to pursue innovative ways to provide relevant and engaging programs.
"We dream big about what we can do," says Carter. "We have a golden opportunity to keep re-imagining how post-secondary education is delivered. Brantford is an ideal space for that to happen."
– Mayor Kevin Davis
From beginnings in the Carnegie Building – a former city library built in 1904 with funds provided by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie – Laurier's Brantford campus started expanding its footprint.
When the university added buildings, it employed an adaptive reuse model, repurposing historic buildings while maintaining facades and architectural elements. A former grocery store became the Market Darling Centre, a CIBC bank became the SC Johnson Building and a residence became the Indigenous Student Centre. The university partnered with the Brantford Public Library to offer study space and house campus collections.
"Laurier's Brantford campus blazed a trail when it comes to universities in Canada opening campuses in downtown cores and renovating older buildings," says Northwood. "The character of the campus is thoroughly intertwined with the community because of it and the economic impacts to the downtown core through the influx of students, staff and faculty are significant."
The City of Brantford has served as a crucial partner in the evolution of the university, offering municipal support each step of the way as Laurier's Brantford campus has grown during the past two decades.
“I am so proud of the role the city played and continues to play in making Laurier’s Brantford campus a success,” says City of Brantford Mayor Kevin Davis.
“As one of the fastest growing university campuses in Ontario, the university has helped transform the city’s downtown into one that is more creative and vibrant, and I look forward to all that the university will continue to accomplish in the years ahead.”
In September 2018, Laurier and the YMCA of Hamilton, Burlington and Brantford opened the new Laurier Brantford YMCA, a 118,000-square-foot recreation facility for students and community members. It was a first-of-its-kind partnership between a Canadian university and a YMCA.
Laurier also recently purchased the former Market Square Mall and is developing a vision for the building, which doubles Laurier's campus footprint in downtown Brantford. The three-story building, renamed One Market, will serve as a multi-use space and support significant student growth for the campus.
"In many ways, One Market is like a clean canvas," says Mark Gray, director of development for strategic initiatives in Development and Alumni Relations. "That creates an opportunity to plan what the future functionality of the building will look like. We are certainly in a great place. The future looks bright for Laurier's Brantford campus."
Connections between Laurier and the Brantford community stand as one of the most impactful results of the campus. Students have access to exceptional real-world experiences through community partnerships, both as part of classes and extra-curricular activities.
"We are working to make the Brantford community strong and to graduate engaged citizens who are going to make a change in the world," says Adam Lawrence, dean of students at the Brantford campus. "We want people to graduate from this campus and then stay in Brantford or feel connected to Brantford. The Brantford community is constantly growing in positive ways and we want students to be a part of that positive growth."
In just two decades, Laurier's Brantford campus has become one of the fastest-growing university campuses in Ontario. During the next 10 years, the university hopes to grow campus enrolment to 5,000 students.
The pioneering spirit, academic excellence, strong student engagement and community connections that have helped grow the campus during its first two decades continue to propel the university.
"From the very beginning, everybody at this campus felt like we were building something amazing – we all had that vision and we all knew that it was going to be something spectacular," says Cox. "Everybody was willing to go beyond their job descriptions to make sure that happened, and the culture was as much the students’ creation as it was the people who worked here.
"Two decades later, look how far we have come. It's really exciting to think about what the next 20 years will bring."
Photo at top: Colleen Miller of the Grand Valley Educational Society holds a photo of the ribbon cutting that officially opened Laurier's Brantford campus on Oct. 1, 1999. Miller is pictured at center in the historic image, along with former City of Brantford mayor Chris Friel and former Laurier president and vice-chancellor Bob Rosehart.