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EDUCATION: Mission: Knowledge
Posted By: WestEnder Staff
08/11/2010 12:00 AM
By Jessica Barrett

Alex Hargott gives the impression of being an old soul. At 25, he has a boyishness about him that stands at odds with his manner of speaking — a confident, folksy cadence injected with archaic turns of phrase you might expect to hear from a much older man. But as conversation progresses, another theory about his seemingly advanced maturity suggests itself: Hargott deployed for an eight-month tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was 23, and there are probably few things like being in a war zone to make someone grow up fast.

“Believe you me, that’s an odd thing, to come home at the age of 23 and you’re a legitimate veteran,” Hargott says over a cup of Earl Grey. “That’s a hard thing to wrap your head around, believe you me.”

Hargott seemed destined for the military: a childhood stint in the Beavers led to the Cub Scouts, which led to the Air Cadets and, eventually, a decision to enter the Canadian Forces Reserves.

Canada’s army reserves make up more than 35,000 military personnel — part-time or contract-based — across the country, many of them in the west. Although active combat isn’t required, reservists account for as much as 40 per cent of troops serving in peacekeeping missions overseas, and as much as 20 per cent of soldiers serving in Afghanistan, according to the Department of National Defence.

Hargott was one of them. After two years working at the Jericho Garrison in Kitsilano, he applied for an Afghan deployment without hesitation. “Why did I put my name in? It’s my job,” he explains nonchalantly.

Thanks to extensive first-aid training, Hargott easily found placement as an ambulance driver with a medical team. After another year of full-time training in Edmonton, he was off to Afghanistan. While much of his time there was spent on base, he experienced his share of near-misses — like the rocket-propelled grenade that skipped off the hull of his vehicle — and saw, up close, the cruelties of war. Following an attack, it was Hargott’s job to clear dead bodies from the base hospital. “Because you don’t waste medics on the dead,” he explains with cool, practiced objectivity.

While overseas, Hargott was generally treated as an equal. Here at home, though, things aren’t so evenhanded. Unlike their regular force counterparts, returning reservists are often ineligible for transitional retraining or education programs offered through the military, making it challenging to find a meaningful civilian career. (Most continue with the army, but on a part-time basis.) Many reservists are left on their own to try to translate their skills to prospective employers.

But a new program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) is set to change that.

This fall, Hargott and 10 other reservists will head to class at BCIT’s School of Business under the Reservist Re-entry Program (RRP). The first of its kind in Canada, the pilot program, which was developed under BCIT business instructor Kevin Wainwright, gives Hargott and others like him advanced placement in the Bachelor’s of Business Administration Post-Diploma Program, by allowing their military training and combat experience to count toward the program’s prerequisites.

Wainwright says that, like a lot of Canadians, he was unaware of the vital role reservists play in Canadian Forces missions. That changed two years ago, when he was enlisted by a group of ex-military business colleagues to help returning reservists with resumé writing and job-hunting skills. Halfway through the 10-month project, Wainwright says it became clear most returning soldiers were not only making a significant contribution in the army, they were brimming with skills that, with a little support, could translate into fulfilling civilian careers.

“The problem is that when you’re in a credential-based society, it’s very difficult for [reservists] to communicate to the outside world what their skills are,” Wainwright explains, adding that most reservists who have served overseas return with a variety of highly valuable, transferable skills. “It’s from soup to nuts,” he says. “They have to have very good communications skills, very good time-management skills, very good dispute-resolution and leadership skills.”

That’s in addition to specific technical, mechanical, first-aid, and survival skills. “We looked at that and said, well, we can give these guys advanced placement,” says Wainwright.

Under the RRP, a student like Hargott, who acquired a smattering of post-secondary credits in his five years with the reserves (in which he continues to serve part-time), can enter BCIT’s post-diploma program in Business Administration. After that nine-month full-time program, he can tack on three more consecutive semesters, graduating with a degree in about two years. That plan, Hargott hopes, will help him achieve his goal of becoming a police officer.

According to Wainwright, the RRP fills a gap in the Canadian Forces’ transition programs, which leave many reservists without the support afforded the regular forces after a tour overseas. “In the case of Veterans Affairs, there’s sort of a grey area here,” he says. “If you’re in the military, then you’re under the Ministry of Defence, and they have education programs and lots of stuff. If you leave the army and become a veteran, then Veterans Affairs has some programs as well. But a reservist is like an on-call soldier: he’s not in, he’s not out, so he doesn’t always qualify for these things.”

The RRP is also designed to complement the Veterans’ Transition Program at UBC, which provides counselling to returning soldiers and peacekeepers, and Honour House, a hospice for families of injured soldiers, which is scheduled to open in New Westminster this November. A referral program is in the works between the three organizations.

There have been previous attempts to create an education-transition program for reservists, says Wainwright, but what sets his apart is that his team doesn’t rely on a one-size-fits-all approach. Upon entering the program, reservists are interviewed by a member of Wainwright’s team — comprised of a handful of staff, as well as students in BCIT’s Human Resources program and the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) club — who assess previous training and identify transferable skills and possible career options. For reservists hoping to jump right back into the job market, the RRP can provide help with resumé writing and job hunting, or support them in developing a business model of their own. Those who want to obtain further education are matched with an appropriate BCIT program.

This year’s pilot is limited to the School of Business, says Wainwright, but entry into the School of Engineering and the School of Health Sciences and Forensic Science is forthcoming. And with 400 full-time programs at BCIT, Wainwright says there are no limits to the potential scope of the RRP. “The whole premise is not to direct these guys on a certain path or tell them what to do with themselves. We simply say, ‘Your military training is worth a lot more than you realize, and if you want to explore what you might be happy doing, we will help.’”

Since February of this year, the RRP has helped more than 30 reservists prepare for school or re-enter the work force. It’s also attracted significant interest from local Canadian Forces bases, as well as from the U.S. Army, which is interested in developing a similar pilot of its own, says Wainwright. With Canada expected to wind down combat operations in Afghanistan in the next year, he anticipates enrollment to grow exponentially. “We figure that there may be 1,000 [reservists] coming back each year to Vancouver,” he says, adding that the only concern he’s heard from military officials has been whether BCIT can handle the expected influx of interested reservists.

But for Hargott, the RRP has given him a chance to spend some time dwelling on a topic he wouldn’t allow himself to consider while on tour in Afghanistan: his future. “When people would ask me what my five-year plan was, I would say, ‘Live to see 25.’ Anything beyond that is gravy.”
I'm fairly surprised that this caught on in BC first. What a great idea.
I had the good fortune to have young Mr Hargott as one of my troops in Afghanistan. I'm glad to see he's doing well.
“We figure that there may be 1,000 [reservists] coming back each year to Vancouver,”

1000 per year to Vancouver?  Does that number strike anyone else as improbably high?
Brad Sallows said:
“We figure that there may be 1,000 [reservists] coming back each year to Vancouver,”

1000 per year to Vancouver?  Does that number strike anyone else as improbably high?

I'm thinking it's a reference to the number returning from summer every school year. IIRC Vancouver has a butt load of reserve units in it's vicinity not to mention students attending classes from other areas in the province and Canada.
For the number to be that high, I suppose somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of all members of the GVRD reserve units would be out-of-towners, which doesn't match what I used to see on nominal rolls.
Now if they would give tax breaks to employers for hiring active duty reservists and disabled war vets.