By Kim Stock
Little-known fact about the University of Calgary: the MacKimmie Library Tower has an 11th floor! If that isn’t enough to blow your mind, on the 11th floor there resides the Arctic Institute–a prestigious Canadian museum.
This information seems to have escaped many of the University of Calgary student body, with the exception of the students involved in the Northern Planning and Development Studies and Theme School. The students there work toward their minor in the Theme School under the direction of Professor Karim Kassam.
The concept of the Theme School was developed by Kassam and his colleague Cooper Langford in 1994–coincidentally, the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Institute–when the Arctic Institute asked them to create a program that was intricately involved in community development directly related to the far north.
Kassam describes the end result of his planning as a school where "students come together as a community to solve issues relevant to society."
The Theme School encompasses a few key principles, including a strong commitment to community and a proactive experiential learning environment where students are expected to take control of their own intellectual advances.
"The students are not just consumers of information, they are producers of insight," said Kassam.
In order to obtain their minor degree in the Theme School, students are expected to undergo an internship. All internships are unique and can range from studnets compiling a book about the Beaufort Sea development (which was acutally published), to one student creating a website entitled Geomatics Canada, which is now used as a resource for high school students across the country.
"My students published a book before me!" said Kassam. Kassam himself has written many invited articles and essays, as well as reports and book reviews. He has also co-authored a book due out in October entitled Sami Potatos: Living with Reindeer and Perestroika.
Kassam describes the internship component of the course as something where the student "must be able to apply learning… to practical, relevant issues in the community."
To complete their internships, two other students accompanied Kassam to Victoria Island (which is not anywhere near British Columbia, but far north amidst the Franklin Islands) to study the human ecology and the impact of pollutants on it in this far northern region.
Another student organized a community development conference, bringing together people of aborigninal descent from all over Canada to discuss development that is environmentally, socially, culturally and economically sustainable. In essence, the internship itself has to contribute in a positive way to the well-being of the community involved or affected.
The Theme School also offers its students an array of scholarships. The idea of the scholarship endowment was also conceived and implemented by Kassam. In September of 1995, the first year of the Theme School, a young single mother–a student of the Theme School–came to the Arctic Institute in desperate need of help. The government of the North West Territories was late in giving her a grant, and she had no money to pay her rent or buy groceries for her two young toddlers. Her landlord was threatening to evict her, and she was in a state of distress.
"She was in tears. Frankly, we didn’t know how to react," said Kassam. "So we called the government of the nwt and her landlord to confirm everything she had told us."
After confirming her story, Kassam and Langford decided to take matters into their own hands. Within one hour, this dynamic duo had raised $900 to provide for the young woman’s rent and groceries.
Kassam vowed on that day that he would make it one of his roles to concern himself with students’ financial well-being.
"If we did not act, our words would be empty," said Kassam.
Between September and December 1995, Kassam had raised $91,000 in scholarship funding. To date, the fund consists of $125,000.
"What is interesting is that I didn’t have to go hustling for money, to put it crudely," said Kassam. The private sector was more than willing to contribute to the Arctic Institute’s scholarship fund. Kassam asked Amoco Canada for $20,000 in funding, and Amoco gave the Arctic Institute $50,000.
The Arctic Institute and Northern Planning and Development Studies and Theme School have given out $18,000 in four years.
The current scholarships awarded to Theme School students are the Amoco Canada Scholarship, the Budget Calgary Scholarship and the Gerald Thompson Scholarship. This year’s recipients were Shelly Kovalench, Ciara McNiff, Heather Clitheroe and Hugh Moloney. Moloney was the first male receipient of any scholarships awarded by the Theme School.
Budget Calgary came on board just recently as a corporate donor, and sent Muhammed Ali to the awards presentation of the scholarships to present the bc award. No, it wasn’t the real Muhammed Ali.
The Theme School also attracts students from a variety of faculties and, in essence, is an interdisciplinary course of study. This year’s scholarship recipients come from the faculties of Social Sciences, Humanities and Science.
"It’s too bad that everyone can’t take this program. It has many, many benefits," said Amoco Canada Scholarship recipient Shelly Kovalench, adding that the Theme School provides a balance between practical application and intellectual insightfulness.
"The success lies in people promoting its values in everyday life," said Kassam. "I hope to see an ever-increasing number of students doing this."
"The future of Canada lies in our conception of ourselves as a Northern country, and not a group of people trying to escape to the Bahamas," said Kassam. "Thinking Northern is cool."