When Kirsten Campbell first answered the phone for this story, she was on top of a mountain in Cape Breton, N.S., in the rain, and couldn’t believe she had reception. “I was checking out a job we finished a month ago,” she says. “Literally, there’s probably just one spot with service, and I had just climbed into the rig and started to drive.”
Campbell has come a long way since graduating in 2012 with an advanced diploma in forest and fish and wildlife technology from Fredericton’s Maritime College of Forest Technology (MCFT) program. The school is known for being tough, says Campbell, who currently works for a pulp mill as a forest planner, responsible for lumber harvested on government land in Cape Breton. “Our class started with 53 students and graduated with 28,” she says. “Graduating from there, and even doing a half-decent job at it, gives you the confidence to do whatever you want. I’m five foot five, giving myself some credit, and 120 lb., so when I came into the woods with the other fellas, I got side eye, instantly.”
Campbell chose MCFT for its reputation, but also for the amount of hands-on learning promised by the school. She says the highlights for her were camps held at Fundy National Park, about two hours east of the school.
“We have a tremendous working relationship with the park,” says MCFT executive director Gerry Redmond, who, before working for the college, was a big-game biologist at New Brunswick’s department of natural resources for 13 years. During fall camp, students use chainsaws to help with ecosystem restoration, don wetsuits to swim with salmon, and monitor insects, trees and invasive species. At winter camp, students sleep, eat, study and work in the park, travelling on snowmobiles to wire deer carcasses to trees in order to lure wildlife—including bobcats, eagles and marten—to cameras on the trail. They also go up in helicopters to count moose. Both exercises are important to determining the health of the local moose population, which helps park biologists assess the well-being and stability of the entire ecosystem.
“The experience was pretty cool,” says Campbell, who beams in a photo taken before one of her moose-counting helicopter flights. “We flew out almost over the Bay of Fundy, which was crazy. A good buddy of mine, she spotted some moose in between her puking. She’d be mad that I told you that,” Campbell says with a laugh.
But it’s not all a walk in the park. The program is hard, says Redmond, and students work long days, often in bad weather, and frequently give up weekends for field assignments. “One of the most expensive parts of education is the field component, and many universities and colleges, when budgets are tight, they pull back on that,” he says. “We’ve gone the opposite direction.”
For Parks Canada, the partnership makes sense because it exposes the students to the workplace, according to Dan Mazerolle, a Parks Canada ecologist who helps coordinate the camps. Three program graduates currently work in his department; he says the school produces good technicians. “Working in a national park, working with highly qualified instructors actually doing the work, not just learning from books and doing things in the backyard of the college, I think that really adds to their experience.”
For the past five years, Redmond says the college has received more than 100 applicants for 60 spaces in their two-year forest technology program. Only 24 students are accepted into the three-year advanced diploma program that includes fish and wildlife technology certification, although some students, like Campbell, opt to buckle down and finish in two years. “We’re one of the few colleges in the country that isn’t suffering—knock on wood—from enrolment issues,” he says. “I think it’s because people find out about the hands-on type of work we do.”
Campbell has fond memories of her time at the school—including one wild-food potluck where students brought in dishes made with local ingredients, from berries and herbs to moose and bear—and says she’s happy but not surprised by how many of her former classmates have found jobs they really love.
“We don’t track it really precisely, but our estimates are well in excess of 80 per cent get work in their field,” says Redmond. “We don’t guarantee jobs, there’s no way we can do that, but we do tell them that we will prepare them for the workforce.”