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Calm in the storm

Faculty and flexible courses help in face of Fort Mac fire

If being part of a police force means being calm in the face of chaos then Kara Solecki has selected the right program.

Currently enrolled in the Police Studies Extension Certificate with MRU’s Faculty of Continuing Education and Extension, and with an eye to eventually entering the Bachelor of Arts – Criminal Justice degree program, Solecki and her family were forced to show grace under fire when they were among the 88,000 residents evacuated from Fort McMurray this summer.

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~Photo by Kara Solecki

 

 “I was at work,” Solecki remembers, “and reports started coming in that specific neighbourhoods had mandatory evacuation orders, and pictures started surfacing of the fire in full tilt in town.” That was the time that her ‘serve and protect’ instincts kicked in.

 “It wasn’t so much shock at that point as it was fear; worry about all of my friends and family, and then a sort of surreal calm; it was time to plan what the next step was.”

That next step was gathering with her family (mother, father, two sisters, aunt and uncle) and leaving their home in the Timberlea neighbourhood at the mercy of the spreading wildfire.

“We didn’t know where we’d end up so I was planning for the worst and getting any supplies that may be necessary,” she says. Among the short list of items she was able to grab were her textbooks.

She recalls, “For whatever reason, at the time I didn’t think I could part with them. It was exam time!”

Despite a nail-biting drive out of town on a quarter tank of gas, an evacuation plane ride into Edmonton by Westjet and the community of Rocky Mountain House rallying to support her family as they stayed temporarily with friends, Solecki kept up with her studies. “I got through that month away through the help and support from my professor Doug King and keeping busy.

 

King remembers the situation clearly; “I was actually at some criminology-related meetings in Vancouver at the time when I heard from Kara about how the fires were impacting her and her family. I stepped out of the meetings for a couple of hours to email Kara immediately as I was concerned that she might not be in contact, as the Fort McMurray evacuation was imminent.”

No stranger to strategic planning during crises, as he came to MRU from the Calgary Police Service, he endeavoured to set the priorities straight.

“I wanted to convey to Kara that her well-being (and the well-being of her family) should be her focus and not worry about any of the upcoming assignments in the online course.”

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Kara Solecki's Fort McMurray neighbourhood was
evacuated just as she was headed in to final exams.

 

In addition to this strategy, King worked to ease any of Solecki’s academic concerns. “I also offered to be Kara's advocate here at MRU should she need special consideration regarding the two courses she was taking.”

He adds, “I wanted her to know that she didn't have to contact numerous people about her situation. All she needed to do was get me to act on her behalf.” He continues, “I reinforced with her that I was prepared to be flexible about assignment deadlines and that there were things MRU could do if she was unable to complete the courses by the end of the term.

King emphasises, “I really wanted to assure Kara that all of these options existed but not to think about them for now ― just focus on taking care of herself and her family.”

This reassurance was relieving to Solecki who, despite the hurdles, continued diligently in her coursework. She explains, “There was so much emotional turmoil at that time, but staying busy with school work was just so normal, and it felt like it grounded me.”

In hindsight, she reflects that, “I needed this sense of normal so desperately, when everything else was anything but normal.”

She remains appreciative that Doug King (and other staff at MRU) suggested and supported any extensions she might need, and let her know that told her to focus on her safety and well-being. That support, Kara admits, “allowed me to put my worry elsewhere.”

“The flexibility of MRU’s online Police Studies Extension Certificate has always been important to me, as when I signed up, I decided to continue working full time as well as pursue other studies.” Now back with family and friends in her hometown she’s grateful to be immersed in her studies while dealing with her new normal.

“During the time I was evacuated, this flexibility obviously showed its benefits once again.”

King reflects, “I was personally humbled when she let me know that she valued the courses she was taking because they helped her maintain a sense of normalcy during the stress, uncertainty and crisis. Comments she has made about my support are also humbling but I would like to think any professor would have done much the same.”

Charles Webber, dean of Mount Royal University’s Faculty of Continuing Education and Extension is pleased with the outcome. “Mount Royal University, like many organizations in Alberta, was opening our doors to offer help to those affected by the horrific fires in Fort McMurray,” he said. In fact, there were upwards of 500 evacuees that were housed and cared for at MRU while displaced.

“First and foremost, we’re pleased that Kara and her family were safe through this experience. As a faculty, we’re supportive of the accommodations offered by Professor Doug King and are proud of Kara’s strength and commitment to her coursework, especially during this time.”

Webber observed, “This is a wonderful example of how MRU’s community comes together when needed most.”

As for what’s next, she realizes that the unexpected happens, but it’s a good idea to have a plan. “It is my hope to attend MRU‘s Bachelor of Arts – Criminal Justice degree program in the fall of 2017, then I plan to pursue a career in probation or parole; hoping to be one of the first people of contact in the road to rehabilitation for criminal offenders.”

King supports this path for Solecki, stating, “Besides being a student with very refined academic skills, Kara's ability to complete the two online courses while experiencing such stress, crisis and uncertainty is evidence for me of many of the qualities I am often asked to speak to when a Justice employer contacts me for a reference check.” King summarizes, “Kara demonstrated that she was willing to reach out to others during periods of stress and crisis, she is mature in her problem-solving skills, she has strong organizational skills and she cares about the quality of the work she produces.”

Undoubtedly stronger and wiser from the experience, Solecki concludes, “Taking this course helped clarify what a huge portion of my future will look like and made me realize that I never want to stop learning.”

Sept. 29, 2016 ― Jonathan Love