July 22, 2013 - 8:06am

Natalie Nickerson says education is changing her life.

In September, this busy single parent begins her final year of studies towards a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies from Vancouver Island University (VIU). Nickerson is completing her university degree close to home thanks to a partnership agreement between VIU and North Island College (NIC). VIU instructors teach Liberal Studies courses at NIC’s Comox campus two evenings a week.

“Going back to school is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” says Nickerson, who lives in Courtenay. “I want to inspire other mature learners to think about returning to school.”

Many of Nickerson’s high school friends followed a linear path through college or university and sometimes onto grad school, but Nickerson couldn’t decide what to study.

“It was as if I had too many interests,” says Nickerson, who grew up in Ontario. “I told myself that it was best not to waste money on courses that would compete for my attention since my divided curiosity had me dabbling in everything from art to physics. My lack of focus would surely result in poor grades if I didn’t drop out first.”

In hindsight, Nickerson realizes that a bigger barrier to her success as a post-secondary student was her lack of confidence and insecurities in her abilities to comprehend the material. “I couldn’t fathom myself as a university student, or worse, as a drop-out,” she says.

Nickerson moved to Courtenay 20 years ago, and found jobs in the food service industry and as a gardener. One day, she caught herself thinking deeply about a philosophy podcast she had listened to while pulling weeds. On the way home, she pulled into North Island College’s Comox campus and applied for university transfer courses. It was the first step towards her dream of becoming a teacher.

Now three years later, Nickerson couldn’t be happier. “Learning is so much fun,” she says. “I am mastering skills that employers in fields as diverse as law, medicine, business, and education (to name only a few) find indispensable in job candidates, and I have discovered it is possible to achieve an entire university degree close to home.

“Best of all, the Liberal Studies program does not follow a narrowly focused course load,” adds Nickerson. “The readings for the courses are diverse, covering a little bit of everything from visual art and music, to mythology and classic literature, and right through poetry, philosophy and physics. To be specific, I have read Charles Darwin, George Eliot, and Fritjof Capra (to name but three), all in the same year.

“This program presents the opportunity to think about things you don’t normally think about in daily life. Since the program basically follows the evolution of the ideas that have helped to shape the modern western mind from its ancient and classical beginnings, students inevitably gain a larger understanding of the culture in which we live. I have seen myself, and fellow classmates, grow in confidence and in our capacities for understanding, for greater perception, for clarity in articulation of our own and others’ ideas, and somewhat surprisingly, for awareness and compassion.”

The evening classes at NIC’s Comox campus are held in a seminar style, which means students sit in a large circle and discuss the questions that arise for each of them during the week’s reading assignment, while at the same time contributing their perspective on the topic.

“The idea-rich and friendly format facilitates the best that dialogue has to offer--a flow of meaning among all participants,” says Nickerson. “After such a fulfilling experience, I want to others who enjoy learning and engaging with others in meaningful discussion--and who want to cultivate crucial job skills along the way--to consider joining the Liberal Studies program offered by VIU.”

Nickerson hopes prospective students won’t be deterred by the financial burden of returning to school.

In her case, she applied for student loans and received “invaluable” support through scholarships and bursaries offered through VIU’s Financial Aid Office and the North Island College Foundation. In three short years, Nickerson received a $5,000 Irving K. Barber scholarship from the Victoria Foundation, $1,500 from the Comox Rotary Club and Vancouver Foundation, $900 from the Lazo Women’s Institute, a $500 bursary from VIU’s Liberal Studies department and a $500 bursary from the Canadian Daughters.

“I’ve lived on student loans, scholarships and bursaries,” she says. “I wouldn’t be able to make ends meet for myself and my 11-year-old daughter without this incredible support. I want to thank all the generous donors. Every little bit helps.

“Apart from the financial aid, receiving accolades in the form of these scholarships and bursaries reinforces the fact that all my hard work is paying off. I’m very grateful and I want other students to know help is available.”

For more information about VIU’s Liberal Studies program offered at NIC’s Comox campus, contact the VIU Liberal Studies Department Chair, Maureen Okun, at, or 250-753-3245, local 2174. Details are also available at



Janina Stajic, Manager, Communications and Public Engagement, Vancouver Island University P: 250.740.6288 E: Twitter: @VIUNews

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