Before settling in the Comox Valley, Sandra Harrison had two questions: Is there a good library? And is there a place to take courses?
Both answers were affirmative, and Harrison decided to make Courtenay her home.
It didn’t take her long to find Comox Valley ElderCollege, a volunteer-driven school for people 55 and older which operates out of North Island College.
“It’s such a great opportunity,” said Harrison, chair of ElderCollege’s executive committee. “And there’s a social aspect.”
Born in Saskatchewan and raised in Edmonton, Harrison started out in nursing but instead trained for social work.
She wound up working at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre in Alberta, as a case worker, a probation officer and a program manager.
“Along the way I was what people call a ‘warden’,” said Harrison, who helped the federal correctional system to plan five penitentiaries for women across Canada.
She then served as vice-president on the Alberta mental health board, and was later appointed by the lieutenant-governor as the mental health patient advocate for Alberta, which is like an ombudsperson position.
“I had the most interesting career. I was never bored.”
After retiring “for the second time” in 2010, she hooked up that fall with ElderCollege, which consists of about 140 volunteers and 1,200 members — students — from “all walks of life.” The program includes a Saturday morning lecture series, which has featured the likes of Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May and former Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken. Harrison herself lectured on the criminal justice system.
Aside from lifelong learning, Harrison enjoys travelling. She’s been to Thailand, Australia and Oman, among other places. She’s also been to Barcelona, London, Santa Fe and Chicago on ‘road scholar’ trips.
“It’s a good excuse to travel,” Harrison said. “There’s so many ways to learn.”
Last summer at the University of Oxford in England, she took a course that examined the role of the British Broadcasting Corporation — behind the scenes — in the Second World War. She stayed at the Christ Church campus.
“We ate what they call ‘in hall.’ It’s the dining hall where they filmed Harry Potter. And on the walls are portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and Henry VIII. If you like history, you just get that sense.”
Harrison is also a dog lover — she has two of them — and takes an interest in genealogy. She is a member of a local family history group.