Willis College Celebrates 120 Years in the Community

It’s hard to believe Willis College has been training minds in the Ottawa area for over 120 years. Opening its doors in 1896 as a business and secretary school in Ottawa by shorthand expert Stephen T. Willis, the college has long been known for its dedication to the community and its commitment to skills training excellence.

“When you are 120-years-old in the community, you become a community. When you have four generations of families trusting you (with their education), you become the community. When you have projects that benefit the community, you become the community. It’s about partnerships and networking. Community is one of the most important pillars,” says Willis College President and CEO, Rima Aristocrat.

The school once housed a total of 17 students and three staff members. Today, Willis College is an internationally recognized educational institution, offering its students state-of-the-art courses in business, technology and health care with three campuses in the Ottawa area. There is a location on O’Connor Street plus one in Arnprior and one in Smiths Falls.

Since 1989, Willis has been led by Aristocrat. Within seconds of meeting her, one can sense her magnetic personality and an unbridled passion for what she does.

Aristocrat’s story is as unique as Willis’. She immigrated to Toronto from Georgia in 1974 with the hopes of starting a new life. Equipped with a Bachelor of Science and Music and a Master of Education from her native country, Aristocrat recognized that she needed to acquire a new set of skills for life in her new country.

“Even though I had degrees, I quickly realized that when you come to a new country, it’s a new language, it’s a new culture,” she explains. “You really need to take something to upgrade your skills set. There wasn’t a need for a whole new education. However, I needed something quick, not only from a skills point of view but an understanding of the culture. How do Canadians work? How do Canadians think, and what are they looking for?”

During her time in Toronto, Aristocrat made a name for herself in the business and educational fields. In 1975, she founded and led the Canadian Association of Immigrant Professionals. The organization would assist Canadian immigrants with degrees in higher education to attain skills training. Aristocrat also began to study technology at Longview College, eventually graduating and becoming vice president of the school.

Soon, destiny came knocking. In 1989, Aristocrat was offered a job at Willis College to teach computers. When she joined the school, she saw its potential to grow and become a bigger educational institution than it was. While at the time, Willis taught few students and was still known primarily as a secretarial college, Aristocrat knew it could offer much more.

“I was surprised, with its history, why it didn’t have more students,” Aristocrat recalls. “When I learned that private career colleges are not funded by the government, and that it depends on how many students you have in the classroom, I very quickly realized that they must be doing something right to survive 100 years. But I also saw that they were not going to be able to survive much longer if they only had a few students a year.”

Aristocrat prepared a business plan for the head of the college, Rodolphe Rousseau. The plan outlined how Willis could extend its services and programs, especially in the area of technology. Silicon Valley was booming, and Aristocrat foresaw an equally booming job market.

“After many meetings, I took over,” she says.

Aristocrat began developing programs, sending them for approval and implementing them. “I became the first immigrant and first female to lead Willis College. I was obligated as a new president and as a new immigrant to make sure that nothing happened to this noble establishment while it was under my leadership.”

Aristocrat has remained wise with her business decisions, always keeping her students’ best interests in mind. “We are measured by what kind of jobs my graduates can get,” she explains. “Some students have PhDs, some of them are medical doctors, and some have a higher education than us working at Willis. They are our clients, and they are investing in their future.”

One way Willis helps students to land jobs after graduation is through partnerships with companies. Under Aristocrat’s leadership, the college has established partnerships with many technology, multinational Fortune 500 companies, including a recent collaboration with security giant SOPHOS from the United Kingdom. Fortinet from California and Check Point from Israel are two other lucrative cyber security partnerships that work with Willis. They are job pipelines for graduates. Companies come to Willis with job opportunities and Willis provides highly and quickly trained, skilled workers.

Providing her students with opportunity is a priority for Aristocrat. “It’s one thing to give somebody fish,” she says. “It’s another to teach them how to fish. Education and skills training empower people. They allow you to be a self-sustaining, confident and innovative person.”

Aristocrat speaks of her students with pride. She has been applauded for her work with students in minority groups, specifically women, youth, and Indigenous groups.

Aristocrat introduced Women in Information Technology (or WITS) as a program at Willis for women to learn the necessary skills for a job in the traditionally male-dominated IT job sector. In 2000, Aristocrat began TeKnoWave, Canada’s first national Aboriginal IT training program. The non-profit organization seeks to train First Nations, Inuit, and Métis populations for technological jobs. Its pilot program met with great success. For the past eight years, Willis has been partnering with Minwaashin Lodge, an Aboriginal women’s support centre in Ottawa, to develop Courage to Soar, a program for Aboriginal women who are homeless, survivors, or at risk of domestic violence. The students are trained, with full sponsorship, for careers in office administration, including job placement and agency referrals after graduation. Over 120 women have successfully graduated from the skills training program.

“This is a labour of love,” explains Aristocrat. “While I’m leading Willis, having Aboriginal success, having Aboriginal people to bridge the skills gap in Canada, having Aboriginal people stand up and be counted is a part of my mission.”

This past November, Aristocrat was chosen as Honourary Chair of the Immigrant Women Services Ottawa Candles and Roses Gala. Magdalene Cooman, the Chair of the IWSO, finds Aristocrat’s work especially inspiring.

“Rima was chosen as Chair of the IWSO Gala because, as an immigrant woman who came here in the ‘70s, she symbolizes courage, vision, determination, and strength as a leader,” says Cooman. “(Aristocrat) has a spirit, which has supported thousands of immigrant women, men, and youth in establishing strong roots in Canada.”

To Aristocrat, community is everything. Students taking technological programs at Willis are required to create projects that involve and benefit the community. For example, students will find non-profit or small to medium-sized companies who cannot afford technologies. Students will then create the technology and deliver it to the business. This project counts toward their credits for graduation.

“We’ve put millions of dollars into tech programs in the city of Ottawa,” Aristocrat exclaims. “It’s win-win.”

2016 will be a big year for Willis College, and for Aristocrat. Willis plans to roll out some new projects, including Women in Cyber Security Scholarships, Willis Corporate Training Department, Willis College Aboriginal Education Department, new partnership with Invest Ottawa and CENGN, a plan to assist new refugees from Syria and a partnership with Ottawa 2017 to help celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.

Willis will also be implementing a brand new scholarship to celebrate its 120 years: the Jim Watson Scholarship. This partnership with Canada’s 150th birthday will see the creation of Jim Watson Cyber Security Professional Scholarships. A total of $150,000 in funds will help draw additional students to fill 150 cyber security professional jobs created for the talent pipeline Willis College and its partners have created.

As for Aristocrat, she is excited for the future. “We are going to implement a lot more services that will help the entire community. I’ve always said that we are not a community college. We are a college for our community.”

Photo: Michelle Aristocrat