Global Woman of Vision: Dr. Jodi Abbott
From her position as president and CEO of NorQuest College to her role as a world figure skating judge, Abbott is all about living life outside the box.
October 15, 2017
photography by Cooper & O'Hara
When Dr. Jodi Abbott took over as President and CEO of NorQuest College in 2010, she sent out an announcement to about 100 of her peers, informing them of her new role. Abbott herself was excited, but the responses raised a red flag. “I got more than a half a dozen emails back asking me what province I was moving to, and I was mortified,” says Abbott. “We did our work within the walls, we produced great graduates, but nobody knew about us. And so, we made a decision that we were going to have a bolder vision. And part of that bolder vision was people knowing who we are.”
Abbott began by connecting with industry and business leaders, spearheading the Workforce Advisory Council to ensure that student programs are industry-relevant. Another early initiative was the 1,000 Women campaign. Concerned about stories of students who weren’t reaching their potential because they couldn’t afford basics like bus fare or rent, Abbott, along with then board chair Wendy Kinsella and board member Lynn Faulder, launched the campaign six years ago as an endowment to provide emergency funding for students facing financial barriers. It has now raised more than $2 million and raised awareness about the college. The signature fundraising event grows every year and encourages women to get involved in philanthropy.
The most recent milestone for Abbott’s bold vision was the opening in early October 2017 of the Singhmar Centre for Learning — the first new educational facility to be built at NorQuest in 47 years. With more than 100 languages spoken on campus in a student population where 60% were born outside of Canada, the 4-storey 22,500 square foot facility embraces Abbott’s vision of inclusion. Staff and students all share the same common eating area and there’s a day care, indigenous centre and a large lab for the practical nursing program, one of the largest in Canada. The campus feel is enhanced by classroom spaces and hallways with large floor-to-ceiling windows that all face the building’s interior courtyard. Whether it’s a student who comes to NorQuest directly out of an Edmonton high school or an international student with an advanced degree attending to learn English, Abbott sees opportunity in the international experience. “We are showing the world that cultures can come together because we all have a common thread. We want to live, we want to thrive,” says Abbott. “I think in what’s happening around the world right now, NorQuest has a really important place in our society and in the post-secondary community because we are living this, and living this in a peaceful, wonderful, revitalized way.”
Abbott’s passion for NorQuest stems from what she sees as an alignment of values. As a self-described builder and fixer, she wanted to be a part of building something incredible, and NorQuest offered that challenge. She has always pushed herself and her boundaries. Growing up in the town of Edson, she was a shy, average student who lacked confidence. When her junior high counsellor suggested she wasn’t smart enough for university, Abbott was devastated. “I was very fortunate to have an incredible mother who was a fierce leader of our home,” says Abbott. “She taught me through my whole life that you can do anything, and it’s not going to be easy, but don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something. That has been critically important for me. Even if it kills me, I’m going to do it.” She went on to get her master’s degree and PhD, and except for one year, did it while working full-time in senior-level positions in the health industry.
At the same time, Abbott, a former figure skater, has become influential in that world as well. “I’ve been judging since I was 16 years old, and it took me about 18 years to go through all of the examinations and processes to be a world level judge,” says Abbott. “It’s really quite incredible that I had the opportunity to go to two Olympic games, in Vancouver and then again in Sochi. In a judging career you are lucky if you get one because we have many judges.” She was also part of a small elite international group that revamped the judging system after the Salt Lake City Olympics.
One measure of Abbott’s impact at NorQuest is it’s growth. Under her leadership, the student population at the college has more than doubled in six years to 16,000 students a year. But Abbott stresses that key to any success is a strong support system. In addition to her mother, Abbott cites the support of her husband of 35 years, whom she married when she was just 19. “To me, it comes down to ‘You don’t do it alone’. You never do. There is always someone, a support system, a community around you that allows you to bubble to the top and succeed.”