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Every fall, thousands of Northerners bid adieu to friends and family and hop on planes headed south. They will not return for eight months—if they return at all. It’s an annual autumnal pilgrimage that has played out for decades across the three territories, with students leaving to further their education away from home at established southern institutions.

This brain drain is well documented. Despite the hefty incentives territorial governments have come up with to lure students back after their studies are completed, many never return. After two or four years away, bonds are made in the south, and these young people are often content to stay put to nurture their burgeoning careers or relationships—or both.

"With the growing interest in climate change research, the land is becoming an area of intense study." 

But it’s not all drain and no gain. Headed the other way on the return legs of those very same flights each semester—albeit in far fewer numbers right now—are equally curious, inquisitive and ambitious students who have a keen interest in the North and all it has to offer.

And why not? There’s no shortage of experts to learn from in the North. With the growing interest in climate change research, the land is becoming an area of intense study. And there are plenty of job opportunities open to students once they graduate from Northern schools.

Though the territories’ three colleges—Yukon College, NWT’s Aurora College and Nunavut Arctic College—are mandated to focus their efforts on supporting the needs of local students, they do get enrolment from southern and international students when space is available. Michael Vernon, communications coordinator with Yukon College, says the college doesn’t even do much in the way of advertising to recruit southerners. “It’s a lot of word of mouth and students who are motivated,” he says. “They’re looking for an adventure. As much as high school students who grow up in the North might be looking to spread their wings and go down south, there’s a similar crop of people who arrive in the North every year who are looking for adventure and to get beyond where they grew up in Ontario or Manitoba or Alberta.”

Yukon College doesn’t track how many students it admits from other territories and provinces, but roughly 75 to 90 people with permanent addresses outside the Yukon have enrolled in credit programs in each of the last three years. (That accounts for seven or eight percent of total enrolment for those programs.)

And that’s just Canadian students. Yoshie Kumagae, coordinator for international education with Yukon College, says in 2016, 70 full-time international students were registered in the fall semester, and 51 in the winter. These students are interested not only in English as a Second Language programs, but also the college’s business administration and aviation management programs. The relatively lower tuition fees when compared with southern universities, the smaller  class sizes, the campus and its tight sense of community, along with the potential for jobs in the Yukon are other factors that attract these students. “I’d say most of the Yukon College graduates—the international students—they stay in Whitehorse. They like the community here. Whether they’re here for two or three years studying, they make a community here, so they often stay,” Kumagae says. “They can apply for post-graduate work permits after their graduation, so they can have some opportunities to work in Canada.”

In the Yukon, the Renewable Resources Management and the Geological Technology programs in particular are popular with students from outside the territory, in large part due to the amount of outdoor, hands-on fieldwork involved. At the NWT’s Aurora College, the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (in partnership with the University of Victoria) and the Environment and Natural Resources Technologist programs see enrolment from southern students for similiar reasons.

Sjoerd van der Wielen took an earlier incarnation of the two-year ENRT program through Aurora College in Fort Smith, NWT nearly ten years ago. He had previously completed a four-year degree in the Netherlands, but had a tough time getting this credential recognized when seeking work or to beef up his education in southern Canada. When he and his wife moved to Délı̨nę, he heard about the ENRT program. Having fallen in love with the North already, the program made sense.

van der Wielen went on to complete the diploma program and, later, a bachelor degree online through the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Today, he’s the director of lands with the Délı̨nę government and when he reviews resumes, he sees the Northern experience as a plus. “I’d rather see a college diploma from the North than a college diploma from the south. There is no doubt,” he says, explaining the benefit of background knowledge and an understanding of the specific demands of working here, accrued through the time spent at a Northern school. “You need a flexible attitude and you need a completely different skillset.”

Although van der Wielen found some aspects of his program plodding, the highlights were a caribou hunt and another two-week winter camp. “My tent mate was an Inuk guy and I learned a lot,” he says. “He could tell stories about the snow. We made a quinzee together.” These practical components of the program, he says, played a large part in his choice of the college over a southern one.

"The territories are teeming with PhDs, doing anything from permafrost and ice-cover monitoring, to archaeological digs, to health and contaminant studies. With more and more study devoted to climate change, the interest is only poised to grow."

This opportunity for hands-on learning from local experts is at the very root of the Dechinta experience. Dean Erin Freeland Ballantyne says the NWT bush university hosts a variety of southern students—from undergrads receiving credits from their universities to masters and thesis students with backgrounds ranging from political science to circumpolar energy and sustainability. The land-based learning lets people ground their hard sciences in the human aspects of their disciplines. Take a recent sememster on the Mackenzie River—or Deh Cho. “You could see the permafrost melting into the river—the banks of the Deh Cho by Jean Marie River disintegrating,” says Freeland Ballantyne. “The elders can talk to people. “Hey, my cabin used to be there. Now that entire embankment is gone.” That makes science real for people.”

Freeland Ballantyne says southern universities are now approaching Dechinta to discuss partnerships, whereas five years ago, these same institutions were wary of them. “It’s really regarded that if you want a competitive undergraduate degree, you should have at least a semester or a whole year that’s abroad,” says Freeland Ballantyne. “And the big Canadian universities are really starting to consider that abroad can also mean going to places in Canada that are completely different from where you’re studying.”

She says southern students also leave Dechinta with a deeper understanding of the role Northerners have taken in the development of land claims and other major Canadian political movements. “The North has been a really dynamic political player and there’s a lot of leadership that’s come from the North that’s had influence nationally in terms of these conversations,” says Freeland Ballantyne. “We have this incredible political history that the rest of the country hears little bits about, but for them to come North and really understand how much that’s a part of our social fabric and what that means on a day-to-day basis in community life, I think, is really important.”

The Yukon College recognized the local expertise it had in the territory when it developed its First Nations Governance and Public Administration certificate and diploma programs. The programs were initially conceived to build First Nations capacity in the Yukon, but they have seen some uptake from southern students who are able to pick the brains of those involved in landmark events. “It’s a huge thing to be able to bring in former negotiators from the land claims process from 20, 25 years ago to speak about their experience and what the intent was versus how things have developed over the past 25 years,” says Michael Vernon. “And then also to bring in current and former chiefs who have been building that capacity within their First Nations and to talk about the challenges they’ve faced and the successes that they’ve had over the past 25 years.”

The college is currently developing its first made-in-the-Yukon degree program—a Bachelor in Indigenous Governance—and hopes to have it running by 2018. The college is also working on a climate change post-degree certificate program, which has already seen interest from students and researchers outside the Yukon.

The North has long been a popular destination for research. The territories are teeming with PhDs, doing anything from permafrost and ice-cover monitoring, to archaeological digs, to health and contaminant studies. With more and more study devoted to climate change, the interest is only poised to grow.

Pippa Seccombe-Hett is vice-president of research with Aurora College’s Aurora Research Institute. She says Inuvik’s Western Arctic Research Centre has hundreds of people coming through its doors each year. The centre, one of the busiest of the roughly 40 Canadian Northern Network of Research Centre Operators facilities, connects researchers with community members, provides equipment and support and helps process samples. Still, southerners direct most of the research conducted in the NWT: the federal government or southern universities lead the majority of the roughly 200 NWT research projects licensed each year. But Auoroa College recently gained the ability to access federal funding pots available to most southern Canadian institutions. This will help Northerners apply for and lead research programs, allowing researchers to stay in the North rather than having to work for a southern university—becoming both a recruitment tool and a way to stave off the brain drain to the south.

The North will always attract adventurers, the curious, the determined—and Northern academic institutions are finding ways to set them on a course to develop their talents, to contribute to the North, and to add their new perspectives and ideas to the community.

In January, Yoshie Kumagae asked a student from India why he loved the Yukon so much. “He said, “Yoshie. It’s clean air,”” she says. “For us, sometimes we don’t maybe notice anymore because this is what we’re used to. But for the international students, something like that really matters.”