Investing in Knowledge

Gurpal Dhaliwal, President Western Community College

by Junita Thakorlal

Post-secondary education is on the rise in Canada, and universities and colleges are increasing their course offerings to keep up with demand. Gurpal Dhaliwal is an entrepreneur who saw this need for higher education and decided to meet it head on.

He arrived in Canada in 1993 with his parents, both of whom were university professors and soon found that they could not find jobs in teaching. “They both left their livelihoods behind in India and were not happy that their university education and experience was not recognized here leaving them to pursue labour jobs to make ends meet. I was only 14 years old at the time, so they left me here with my sisters to complete my education and returned back to Canada upon retiring in 2007.”

The vision for Western Community College began in 2009 when Dhaliwal was inspired by his parents. “My dad taught English, Punjabi and Social Studies, and my mom taught History,” explains Dhaliwal. “But even after moving back here, I realized that they just weren’t happy, and I wanted to do something for them that would keep them busy in something they are passionate about.”

“My parents instilled in me the passion of education and honestly, I wanted to build a legacy for them,” shared Dhaliwal from his office in the new Surrey campus. “We started off with a dream, I didn’t know anything about how to open a college but where there’s a will, there is a way.”

He confided that he was gifted in mathematics and his parents wanted him to pursue chartered accounting. While he was in university, he began working at Real Canadian Superstore to pay for his tuition. “I realized that entry level accountants were making less money than I was making at Superstore, and the corporate culture there is very nurturing. They offered me a full-time position and I just worked my way up the ranks to become store manager.”

A career in retail is not exactly what any South Asian parent dreams about for their children but as soon as Dhaliwal became assistant manager, his parents swung around to support him. Soon thereafter, he became the store manager of the Guildford and King George locations in Surrey. “Running a $100 million business per year managing 400 employees is not a small thing, they [my parents] knew that I was earning much more than an accountant, and that my job held meaning to so many staff members.”

“I learned about hands-on management, colleague engagement and training, office culture, customer service, vendor management – all of these skills are transferrable,” he claimed. “The role really helped me transition into Western Community College full-time.

He explained how his career as the owner of a private college got started. “I just called the Inquiry BC line and asked how to open up a college and how to get approved by the body that regulates college programs,” he said referring to the Private Training Institutions Branch (PTIB).

“At that time, we opened as Canadian Career College and were one of the first Punjabi-owned colleges on the health-care side,” Dhaliwal remembered. “We struggled but I was proud of the fact that we signed up 65 students. We did whatever it took to serve our students, including offering a free shuttle service to make it convenient for our students who didn’t drive to get to campus. This way, students can focus on their education – it’s these types of extra care that set us apart from other private colleges.”  “I almost shut down due to problems in my partnership, but it was my dad that pushed me to graduate our students,” he said in retrospect. “I remember doing a program with Harjinder Thind live on RED FM 93.1 as a last-ditch effort and were thrilled to receive 60-70 calls from new students who wanted to register! That’s when I decided to take over and re-brand as Western Community College.”

Western Community College opened its first campus in Surrey in 2012, second campus in Abbotsford in 2016, and third campus in South Surrey earlier this year. Having outgrown the original Surrey location, Dhaliwal built a swanky new Surrey campus which is located on Scott Road at 82 Avenue. The office of the registrar asserts red glass panes and modern white furniture giving it glamourous appeal. The remainder of the brand-new campus is no less impressive, boasting a cafeteria with daily meal options, a dedicated fully equipped lab with patient beds for health care classes, a library, a lecture hall, and a separate student services area where the Dean’s office is situated.

Today, Western Community College graduates more than 600 students per year through their three campuses. True to his humble nature, Dhaliwal compared the relationship he has with his 61 staff members to that of an extended family. “We have lunch together almost every day or try to. I find that building relationships like this is so important to the success of the college.”

There are over 1 million students enrolled in Canadian post-secondary institutions, and according to the Canadian Bureau of International Education, Canada has become the fourth most popular country for post-secondary education internationally. The demand for seats is only going to grow as the population aged 19 and under surpasses seniors aged 65+. “Right now, there is a need for healthcare workers, so we are doing our part to help feed the demand. We produce 11% of all healthcare workers in BC. Baby boomers are retiring, and we can’t deny that the burden on our healthcare system will increase,” he shares his insight.

What sets Western Community College apart from the rest? Dhaliwal answers quickly, “Affordability is a big thing. Those that don’t get into a public college look to private college and our rates for PTIB accredited courses are the lowest in the Metro Vancouver region. All of our courses are PTIB accredited which is essential for student loan approvals. And our employment rate is 97% within six months of graduation which is important for students.”

The college offers 41 programs options ranging from healthcare to hospitality to accounting to information technology. Each of their programs are accredited with EQA (Education Quality Assurance) which is managed through a program advisor and an advisory committee consisting of 1 student, 1 graduate, 1 employer, and the dean.

“We take education very seriously, hence the accreditations. The purpose of the committee is to consistently audit the program to ensure that the quality of education is consistent with market trends,” claims Dhaliwal. “We won’t market a program until we meet full PTIB compliance.”

He confides, “we’re the new kid on the block and have to compete with existing private colleges that have been around for decades.” Western Community College recently formed an independent Academic Council and Board of Governors which includes members from public and private colleges that hold high posts such as Deans, Department Heads, and Senior Instructors.

The Council’s role is to oversee governance, annual program reviews, and organize student awards, bursaries, and scholarships. The Board’s role is to measure the college’s success and standards are met through institutional compliance expectations, financial forecasts, student success rates, and measures of student and employee satisfaction.

“We already offer diplomas, but we need to continue progressing towards granting degrees, which is the main motive behind forming these external academic bodies,” Dhaliwal divulged. Currently, Dhaliwal is courting the Degree Quality Assessment Board to be able to offer degree programs. He is also expanding into offering the dental hygienist program, licensed practical nursing, and hospitality management programs in the future.

For more information on programs offered, visit WesternCommunityCollege.ca