Yes, Priscilla, Athabasca University is real

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The main entrance to the main campus building of Athabasca University, photographed in the height of summer, 2014.

The main entrance to the main campus building of Athabasca University, photographed in the height of summer, 2014.

Because Athabasca University teaches students online mostly, people who don’t know us well still sometimes wonder if we’re “real.” Do we have a campus? Professors? Staff? Is “Athabasca” even a real place?

One of our students grappling with these classic AU questions was Priscilla Lear, a sociology student who lives in Maputo, Mozambique. But to satisfy her curiosity and get proof that AU is in fact real, Priscilla did something that most students don’t: she bought a plane ticket to Edmonton, rented a car and made a pilgrimage out to the very real main campus of AU in the very real town of Athabasca, Alta.

Except for convocation when hundreds of grads flock to the main campus, students don’t drop by very often, said Carla Yeaman, the coordinator of the AU Information Centre. “A half-a-dozen times a year, a student might swing through to take a look at the campus — but never from such a far distance.”

“Paying money for ghosts”

Like many people who study with AU, Priscilla enrolled because online university would fit better into her life. Her husband, a civil engineer who builds roads all over Africa, has to move a lot because of his work, which means she does too. “I wanted to be able to continue my studies without being affected by my husband’s postings,” she said.

After finding out about AU through some Canadians she met in Ghana, she signed up in July 2013. Soon she was glued to her computer studying SOCI 287: Introduction Sociology I and having spirited debates with her tutor Peter Kennett. “At some points, we had to agree to disagree,” she said with a chuckle.

But there was still something about the online nature of AU that seemed mysterious to her. “I was really just paying money for ghosts,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about (AU), so I decided to come. I had an invitation from a friend to come to the jazz festival in Montreal, and I got a good deal on the plane ticket to come here, so I decided to fly from Montreal to here.”

The grand tour of the “real” Athabasca University

To satisfy her curiosity about Athabasca University, sociology student Priscilla Lear travelled to the main campus in Alberta all the way from her home in Mozambique.

To satisfy her curiosity about Athabasca University, sociology student Priscilla Lear travelled to the main campus in Alberta all the way from her home in Mozambique.

Once she drove up the hill to AU, the university blinked into tangible existence. And then the details emerged when Wendy Carswell, an Information Centre attendant, gave her a tour.

“It was great,” said Priscilla. “Wendy took me around and she showed me all the buildings. We went to the library, we met some students that are here for three months and some teachers … and I got my student card.”

And then Priscilla got to meet face to face with Antonika Pawlitschek, one of AU’s counsellors. “That was really valuable,” she said. “I just wish I had been touch with her a year ago.”

Antonika helped Priscilla choose what courses to take next for her BA in sociology and also helped her come up with a plan for finishing the degree. And then, after some more chatting with AU staff and receiving some AU merchandise, it was time to wrap up her visit.

Now that Priscilla’s experienced the AU that exists in the earthly realm, what’s her verdict? “I’m happy to have had the chance to come and visit. (AU) is more concrete to me now than a ghost page on the Internet,” she said with a laugh. “And I think you should be proud to be reaching all the way down to southern Africa.”

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