Building the Foundation - Christine McWebb

Christine McWebbAt the same time as contractors were pouring concrete, riveting steel and installing drywall for the new University of Waterloo Stratford campus, Christine McWebb was also helping to build a foundation for the undergraduate and graduate students who would occupy that building.

It was the summer of 2011, and the university had just received approval from the Ontario Council on Graduate Studies for its new Master of Digital Experience Innovation (MDEI) program, which meant it could process applications from students who would start classes that fall.

McWebb, the founding director of academic programs for the Stratford campus, was essentially starting from scratch.

“There were no instructors and no students,” she said in a recent interview, reflecting on the launch of the Stratford campus. “So we recruited by all means possible, and ended up with 16 eligible students, domestic and international.”

Those grad students began at the satellite’s temporary home on Wellington Street, in a former spa across from City Hall, while construction continued on the permanent university building just a few blocks away.

In the fall of 2012, that building opened its doors for the first time to just under 100 first-year Global Business and Digital Arts (GBDA) undergrads, and 19 new MDEI grad students.

From those humble beginnings, the program has grown exponentially.

Five years later, in 2017, nearly 600 students are enrolled in the GBDA and MDEI programs offered at the Stratford campus, drawn to their unique mix of creativity, technology and business.

“This is really way beyond our wildest dreams,” said McWebb of the numbers. “But I did think that this would be a popular program, just because it’s so interdisciplinary and attracts different types of students. It attracts those who are more focused on the creative side and those who are more focused on the business side.”

With technology and digital media as the common denominator, and a sharp focus on collaborating with corporate partners as part of the practical learning process, the GBDA and MDEI offerings stand alone, suggested McWebb.

“It was, and still is to this day, the only program of its kind in Canada,” she noted with some pride.

And students seem to be drawn to that.

“What we hear from them is that they chose this because they don’t want to take a program in just one discipline. They really want to branch out and study different related disciplines in one program,” said McWebb. “Also, because our teaching is very peer driven – they learn as much from each other as they do from us – it allows for a lot of creativity, and it gives them a lot of freedom to explore. That’s the reputation we’ve created.”

Growing student enrolment has also necessitated a growing faculty.

And McWebb said she sees no reason why the phenomenal growth experienced over the last five years at the Stratford campus won’t continue in the next five.

“My sense is that as long as you put everything in place to guarantee a high quality of education, then why not give that opportunity to as many students as you possibly can?”