Building Relationships - Ginny Dybenko

Ginny DybenkoOn September 14, 2012, Ginny Dybenko watched the inaugural group of Global Business and Digital Arts students stream into the fledgling University of Waterloo Stratford campus on the first day of classes.

“This is step one,” said the executive director at the time.

It wasn’t an easy one. Just 24 hours before students were scheduled to walk through the doors of the new building for the first time, officials were still scrambling to secure the occupancy permit and start moving furniture in.

More than that, Dybenko and her staff weren’t even entirely clear on exactly where the campus and its graduate and undergraduate programs were headed.

“When I first came here, we really didn’t know what this was going to be,” said Dybenko in a recent interview at the St. Patrick Street facility. “Certainly, none of us knew what an amazing opportunity it would turn out to be.”

Five years later, the facility has found its footing, discovered its niche, and developed what Dybenko calls a “secret sauce” that has whetted the appetite of 21st century students hungry for a unique learning experience combining creativity, technology and business.

“I knew the demand was there,” said Dybenko, the former Dean of the Wilfrid Laurier School of Business and Economics, and self-described technology geek.

“Corporations were looking for a new kind of talent: digital natives who understand human beings and what motivates them, and how we need to speak to them.”

So early on, UX (user experience) quickly became a focal point for both the undergraduate Global Business and Digital Arts and the graduate Master of Digital Experience Innovation programs.

That emphasis on “human-centred thinking” may have made the Stratford satellite campus unique, but it was building relationships that made it successful, noted Dybenko.

“One of the most important relationships for us was with the City of Stratford,” she said, “because we did recognize the investment that the City had put into what could only have been seen as a bit of a lark on the part of many people.”

From the very beginning, making the Stratford campus accessible to the local community was a priority.

“It was really important to us to make sure that we did everything possible to encourage people to come into the building, and not to see this as an ivory tower in any way, shape or form,” said Dybenko.

That warm welcome was extended to corporations, with which students would collaborate closely as part of the unique project-driven curriculum.

“So we needed real projects, we needed real internships and real jobs for our students, and the corporations have come in beautifully on all three fronts,” said Dybenko, “and they’ve been amazed by what they’ve found here.”

No surprise then, that what started five years ago with a total of just over 100 undergraduate and graduate students has now grown nearly six-fold.

That trend will continue, said Dybenko confidently.

“I won’t be happy until this place has 5,000 students. That may take some time, but I’m sure it will be more than 1,000  in the next few years.”

And after the first tentative step five years ago, that represents a giant leap forward for the University of Waterloo Stratford campus.

“It could have been that nothing worked, that no students came,” said Dybenko as she reflected on the grand opening of the building in 2012. “I heard people saying that it was just going to be a flash in the pan. But on that first day, I remember thinking, the planets are lining up. This is actually going to happen, and it’s going to be a remarkable success.”