New Acting Dean Dr. Rod Lastra on the importance of Extended Education
Dr. Rod Lastra started his new role of Acting Dean of the Division of Extended Education on February 1, 2022. We asked him about what drew him to this work, his role at UM and where he considers his happy place.
What excites you about working at the UM?
To say the University of Manitoba is my alma mater would be an understatement. Over the past 25 years I have had the opportunity of working at different universities across Canada but have always perceived UM as home. This may sound trite, but the truth is this sentiment is grounded in one simple fact – the UM truly had a transformative impact on the trajectory of my family’s life. My parents and I arrived in Canada (from Argentina – I was born in Chile) in the mid-1970s as political refugees with little more than the clothes on our back and United Nations papers in hand – we left our land, language, and our sense of identity behind to start anew. Ten years into our story in Canada, an opportunity presented itself to my parents – return to university and fulfil their unfulfilled aspiration of completing a post-secondary degree. They were admitted to a UM Access program as adult “non-traditional” learners eventually both attaining degrees in Social Work (5 years apart). I learned early on that universities were more than the sum of their parts, more than a place of research and teaching. Reflecting on it now, the flexible academic programs and supports provided to adult learners such as my parents were forward thinking even by today’s standards. They embraced the principles of inclusivity, social innovation, and lifelong learning before these were well defined 21st century goals. So why I am excited? As I am about to embark on my next journey with Extended Education, I can’t help but feel a sense of coming full circle. I look forward to the great work we as a Division are about to commence upon, and I am hopeful that our future efforts will one day positively impact the lives of future generations.
What’s one piece of advice you have for students?
This is tough as there are many. The rapid shift towards a digital global economy and all the prognostications of change, and uncertainty that lie ahead will require current and future generations to have much greater agency over their learning. A lot has been written about the “future of work”, “future skills”, and the need to continually acquire new skills or refine existing ones. Be informed of what the future holds, if uncertainty and disruption is to become the norm then utilize not only what you learned but how you learned it as a means to build resilience. Sir David Willetts, former UK minister of Universities and Science, once stated that the true mission of universities is to develop independent learners – in other words, continuous self-development and self-improvement is the key. If that is true then embracing the principles of lifelong learning will be critical – learning is a not a terminal process but a lifelong commitment. It is also not a commodity but rather a right that leads to both personal growth, civic engagement and societal benefit.
What do you do in your role?
I have been in the Division of Extended Education for almost 10 years and have served as Associate Dean since January 2017. In my current role as Acting Dean I will be overseeing a transformative period in the Division’s history (established in 1949). We have been working with a number of national and international post-secondary continuing education organizations as well as government agencies to ensure our strategic direction is aligned with regional and global trends. This includes developing a robust strategic plan to develop authentic short cycle learning in the form of micro-credentials and related digital university credentials. The next few years will be exciting as we work with the university to not only build a Division with a strong national continuing education identity but also help enable a broader lifelong learning strategy within the University of Manitoba. I look forward to working with many of my colleagues from other UM faculties, schools, colleges, and units in the coming months and years on a number of diverse programs that extend the possibilities of existing ideas – from the ethical use of artificial intelligence, principles of environmental sustainability, inclusion of indigenous worldviews, to social justice and civic engagement programming. In summary, I am privileged to serve the Division and the University in this capacity.
How would you describe the Division of Extended Education?
As a university continuing and extension unit, the Division’s mandate is to develop and deliver upskilling, reskilling, and social innovation courses and programs. The aim is simple – to build on existing professional experience and university education of learners to try and close the skills gap in our province. We currently serve and support a diversity of “non-traditional” learners; approximately 2,500 students enrolled in part-time or full-time intensive continuing education programs. Currently the Division also offers a range of professional higher education programs (i.e., Centre for Higher Education Research and Development, CHERD) as well as pathways/supports for university students (e.g., General Studies and the Access Programs).
Where is your Happy Place and why?
I have a fondness for the outdoors. This was one of the main drivers in me seeking a Master’s and Ph.D., studying forest ecosystems – from old growth interior Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var glauca (Mayr) Franco) forest stands to the fascinating clonal biology of aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.). During this period, I was lucky to work for Parks Canada as a researcher and call “home” many places others would consider outdoor destinations. One location comes to mind – Cory Pass loop trail which is a stunning 15 km difficult hike located a few kilometers north-west of Banff Town site. The trail starts off in an open aspen – Douglas-fir mixed stand before ascending nearly 1,000 meters to a subalpine lookout scattered with the threatened Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis Engelm) … well over 500 years old! I had two study plots near this trail. Ideal time is early September where the distinctive smell of conifer tannin, pine resin and a multicolored deciduous aspen canopy is truly a soul recharging experience – at least for me.