23 Jun 2022

'Talking Student Engagement' Interview with Lianne Gagnon

In this interview, we talk to Lianne Gagnon, Director of Student Services at Niagara College, in Ontario, Canada. Lianne has been in the field of education for over 30 years. She taught remedial English and Special Education on the traditional territory of the Ts’msyen people while living in the small coastal city of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, 50 miles south of the Alaskan border. Lianne expanded her career and became a Disabilities Coordinator and Learning Assistant Specialist before transitioning to role of Dean of Instruction and Student Services. Lianne currently resides in Niagara, Ontario on the traditional territory of Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe peoples. This territory is covered by the Upper Canada Treaties and is within the land protected by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum agreement. Niagara is home to many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, and Lianne is honoured to live in an area with such rich and vibrant cultures.

1. Can you set the scene for us in terms of the college sector in Ontario: what does the college sector look like, and how would you introduce Niagara College to us over in Scotland?

The Canadian province of Ontario has 24 colleges, offering 900 programs that provide students with professional expertise that opens the door to rewarding careers in many of today’s most in-demand fields. Since opening its doors in 1967, Niagara College has grown to become a leader in applied education and training and has established a reputation as one of the most enterprising colleges in the country. Based on our 2021 numbers, more than 8,700 students from over 90 countries study in 130 diploma, certificate, and bachelor degree programs based at specialised campuses in the Niagara region. In addition, Niagara College is involved in projects and partnerships around the world – including with New College Lanarkshire in Scotland!

Our campuses deliver programmes in a wide range of subjects, with good links with local businesses and we are one of the top colleges in capade for research funding. We also like to describe ourselves as a trailblazer in Ontario’s postsecondary system: Niagara College was the first in Canada to offer programs in Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management, Artisan Distilling, and Commercial Cannabis Production! It was also the first in Eastern Canada to offer a Commercial Beekeeping program and we established Canada’s first Teaching Winery, Teaching Brewery and Teaching Distillery.

2. And what specifically is your role as Director of Student Services, and what does your Student Services department do?

My portfolio includes health, wellness and accessibility services, academic and careers advice, the library and learner services, student rights and responsibilities, Indigenous education, and student engagement and leadership. I also lead on engagement with our local communities.

The Student Services division at Niagara College is guided by a unified goal that is grounded in seven values, and there is more about those and our wider work on our website.

The Student Services team supports our students by facilitating their success and enhancing their experiences at Niagara College. Our connection with students commences prior to them joining us, for instance with pre-orientation activities before they commence their studies, such as a “Summer Transition” program for students with disabilities or through “Kickstart”, a suite of activities and introductions for new students that ensures a smooth transition into the college. Once here, students have access to comprehensive services that focus on the well-being of the whole student. Support is provided throughout their academic cycle, from start to finish, to ensure they are holistically supported and engaged.

3. What does student engagement mean in this context? How important is the student voice in shaping the learning experience?

Student voice is critical in shaping their learning experiences. One such example is the role students play in our College Quality Assurance Process (CQAAP). Ontario has a rigorous process of regular and cyclical reviews of our colleges’ quality assurance mechanisms. We follow an assessment framework which helps us to determine that we meet established standards. Its purpose is developmental and facilitates continual improvement, which is why student voice is critical. Through their feedback, students inform us of what’s working and what isn’t. Students have agency in how they engage with us outside of class as well. They choose which co-curricular activities they would like to become involved in, what is meaningful to them, and how they want to expand their skill set and experiences outside the classroom. To that end, it’s important for us to offer an array of opportunities to meet the needs of a wide variety of students. Our Co-Curricular Record (CCR) program invites students to get involved and record hours on their CCR transcript which could be used to leverage their resumes when seeking employment, applying to graduate school, or advancing their careers. Co-curricular activities include on-campus involvement, global citizenship, leadership development, community volunteering, personal and professional development, as well as awards and accolades. Student Engagement is also about students having fun. They want to let their hair down, reduce the stress of studying, and just enjoy themselves, so we work with our campus partners in offering events that meet these needs too. From winter wonderland events to beach parties, BBQs, and Dirty Bingo, students are offered a range of enjoyable ways to engage with each other.

4. Tell us a bit about your Student Administrative Council. What do they do and how do you work with them?

Niagara College Student Administrative Council (NCSAC) supports and enhances student life for Niagara College students. Through student clubs, speaker events, leadership opportunities, and mental health initiatives, they seek to provide advocacy and services in equitable representation of students.

NCSAC plays an integral role in student engagement and often co-hosts events with us that enrich students’ lives on campus. NCSAC is an active partner with Niagara College, and we work very closely with them to engage the student voice and enhance their experiences. One such example is the partnership between NCSAC and our Health and Wellness department to develop a Student Wellness room where our new Wellness Peers can meet with students to assist and support their wellness.

5. You have past experience of teaching in First Nations communities and you’ve mentioned the importance of those communities to the college. What does this important part of Canada’s social fabric bring to the process of student voice and engagement? What perspectives and expertise do First Nations students bring to conversations about learning and teaching, and what does an approach look like that most effectively enables those students to participate in decision-making?

This question is so important; I’m glad you asked. In order to respond, we have to first understand why Indigenous student voice and engagement are important to the students themselves and also to the social fabric of our college.

As Canadians face what colonisation did to Indigenous people historically, and its continued impacts even today, we are forced to confront facts that weren’t taught to us in our public schools until only recently. I didn’t know about residential schools until I moved to British Columbia in my 20s to teach, and my students disclosed their horrendous experiences of being dragged away from their families and communities and forced to live in a government or church-run residential school, often hundreds of miles away from home.

We have become aware how education was used as a tool to control and assimilate Indigenous people by forcing their children to attend these residential schools. What frequently occurred inside those walls was horrific.

Educational institutions now have a responsibility to play a key role in bringing our mottled history to light and leading the way in educating about the deleterious effects of colonisation. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report along with 94 calls to action. A significant portion of the calls relate to education. The Honourable Justice, Murray Sinclair, who headed the Commission, recognised that education is central to reconciliation. He said that “Education got us into this mess, and it will get us out of it.”

It’s through education that we can shine a light on the oppressive systems that impact Indigenous peoples to create a space where they feel safe to participate, share their vibrant culture and have a voice.

6. And what does that mean for the sector today and for the work you do?

Education, in today’s context, can be vital in advancing reconciliation and providing opportunities to level the playing field for Indigenous students, while also expanding knowledge of Indigenous culture. I’ve always said that the first step in reconciliation is learning the truth, and that’s where educational institutions can play such an important role.

The Indigenous Education department at Niagara College generously assists us with this by inviting the college community to join their many events to learn about Indigenous culture and meet with Elders, Traditional Knowledge Keepers, Cultural Advisors, and of course, our Indigenous students. Students often take the lead in helping the Elders, teaching about their cultural practices, and organising events that showcase their traditions. They build leadership skills that ultimately assist them both academically and personally.

We honour Indigenous ways of knowing, being, and doing at Niagara College. We provide designated gathering spaces for Indigenous students, both inside the campus and on the land, where traditional practices, such as smudging or tending to the medicines, can occur. It’s here in these spaces that our students build a home away from home and truly feel like they are part of a close-knit community. It’s these kinds of cultural engagement activities, along with Indigenous staff, Elders, and Traditional Knowledge Keepers that affect retention. By offering Indigenous students culturally safe spaces, wisdom holders, food security, a place to gather, and land-based activities, educational institutions are becoming safer spaces than what their ancestors experienced. Authentic relationship-building and the capacity to participate in traditional cultural practices is at the heart of Indigenous student engagement. The richness of Indigenous culture and the teachings of the first peoples of this country are transforming Niagara College. We have so much to learn from Indigenous students!

7. The pandemic, of course, has had an impact on education across the world. What has been the effect on how the college approaches learning and teaching? And how has this changed student engagement?

Like colleges across Ontario, Niagara College temporarily shifted to remote delivery for many programs following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, as the provincial government begins to ease COVID restrictions, course delivery will continue to be a mix of fully remote, on-campus and hybrid delivery, with an increase in on-campus classes and labs. This follows the delivery model that has been in place through all stages of the pandemic – which has seen at least half of Niagara College’s students experience some on-campus classes and labs as part of their programs each term. The college has seen a gradual increase in on-campus learning in many programs during the second half of the Winter 2022 Term, as we continue to prioritise safety and our students’ experience and academic success. Student services and supports currently continue to be a mix of virtual and in-person.

From an academic and service delivery aspect, we are looking at leveraging what we’ve learned about remote delivery to enhance flexibility and access moving forward. The pandemic taught us that many of our students prefer learning remotely and accessing services remotely as well. While we originally thought that students would be excited to return to campus, there were many who were not and expressed their desire to continue working remotely. We adapted our service model in Student Services, so that we are now offering hybrid delivery: some in-person appointments for students who prefer this and some virtual or phone appointments for those students who favour remote access. We learned that some students, particularly those with mental health challenges or disabilities, found virtual services to be more accessible, while others found it very difficult. The diverse nature of our student population, and what they desire, is driving us to constantly innovate. We are evolving with our students in order to provide them with flexible, accessible, and dynamic learning options.


Thanks to Lianne for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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