As a real estate agent, Gerry Thiessen was all too aware of the hard economic times his town of Vanderhoof and other Northern BC communities were facing in the late 1980s, with mill and mine closures increasing unemployment rates across the region.
When he heard that people were pushing to get a university for the North, he thought it was going to be a challenging goal to achieve, but one with a potential payoff that couldn’t be ignored.
Gerry Thiessen and family
When Gerry, his wife Lesley, and his father Dave saw a petition while out shopping, he signed it not knowing what his signature and $5 pledge would one day help create.
“I guess at that time, you didn’t realize the magnitude of what it could be,” he says. “It just seemed like a good thing. I think we’re so used to ideas coming along, and not all ending up going through the way UNBC did.”
Gerry was feeling a bit overwhelmed providing for a young family at the time, but still had a vision of the future, and a university for the North was part of it. He saw the creation of a university as a way to keep more youth in the region and stem the exodus of promising students.
Sixteen thousand other people from Northern BC had the same vision, and put their names on the same document.
“For too long we had seen our children go down south for university and not come back,” says Gerry. “We realized that if we were going to mature as a resource-based area, we were going to have our young people back in our community, taking those positions of leadership.”
Twenty-five years later, Gerry’s daughters Roberta and Jana-Rae are UNBC graduates, and so are his sons-in-law. Both of Gerry and Leslie’s daughters went to university as adult students with children of their own, and Gerry says it wouldn’t have been possible for them to get their degrees without UNBC, especially the onsite Childcare Centre.
Gerry is now the mayor of Vanderhoof, and says he’s seen a positive change as a result of having a university in the North, not just in his family, but in his entire community.
“I’m incredibly grateful to see what UNBC has done for my family, but as a mayor, I’m grateful because these young people have been able to go to UNBC and stay in our community, taking valuable responsibilities here,” he says.
UNBC trains many students for careers in healthcare, and now some of those grads are coming back to work in Vanderhoof, including one graduate who has set up a medical practice in his hometown.
“That’s a very visual thing, but there are lots of other professions that are being filled by people who were born and raised in the North and are now staying in the North,” he says.
“To have a dream like this seemed pretty over the top. A lot of people thought this wasn’t going to happen, but it did. I think we need to take something positive out of that. If it’s the right thing to do, we need to keep working until it happens, and UNBC was the right thing to have happen.”