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INTERVIEW: Geoff Best reflects on 20 years as Executive Director of OCENET

Geoff Best has served as Executive Director of OCENET since 1999, and in this feature interview, he looks back at some the challenges and successes in this significant 20th anniversary year.

#1: What were the origins of OCENET?

GB: “Originally established in 1992, OCENET was largely focussed on the publication and sale of curriculum documents developed by local educators in order to generate revenues for the school board. Competing with the big publishing companies proved very difficult. In September 1999 I was hired to recruit students from overseas to OCDSB schools. I had considerable experience in Western Canada in working with language schools, overseeing a Homestay program, marketing, and the placement of foreign students in Canadian schools.”

   
 

 Canadian Bureau of International Education (CBIE) President and CEO Karen McBride (far right) and CBIE Board of Directors member David Ross (far left) presented the CBIE Excellence Award to OCENET Executive Director Geoff Best and OCENET International Education Coordinator Kathy Scheepers at the CBIE Annual Conference 2014.

 

 OCENET Executive Director Geoff Best (right) met with His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, former Governor General of Canada, to discuss the OCDSB International Certificate Program and the many other international education initiatives in the OCDSB


"At the beginning it was a "blank slate"... we started at zero."
-Geoff Best, Executive Director, OCENET


#2: What were some of the challenges in the early days of establishing an international education program in the OCDSB?

GB: “When we started there was no website, no computer, or any colour brochures. It was a one-person, bare bones operation. There were few school boards who were recruiting students at that time and educational recruitment fairs were rare. One of the key challenges in developing a program for international students is determining the structure for Homestay accommodations.

Another challenge was that in 1999 the OCDSB was a newly amalgamated school district and considerable networking needed to take place to ensure schools were able to receive international students. In addition, in the early years, there was no “infrastructure” at the beginning — no brochures, application forms, legal documents, etc. Fewer districts were recruiting international students then, but fortunately there was a great deal of collaboration and sharing of ideas and practices.”

#3: Over the 20 years, what are some of the significant changes in international education?

GB: “One obvious change has been the growth of international education in the OCDSB and across Canada. When OCENET started marketing its international student program there were about 35 Canadian school districts actively engaged in marketing their programs — now there are about 140 school districts in a very competitive field.

Another change involves where our international students come from. When OCENET started recruiting international students, the primary market was South Korea; at that time there were no students from China, for example. We have been very intentional about recruiting a diverse international student population; this semester we have international students from 47 different countries.

Also, changes in technology have enabled more efficiencies such as creating databases of information that can be readily retrieved.

There are lots of moving parts and the unexpected can happen with government policy changes or health concerns, such as the SARS outbreak in 2003. Each day brings variety; every day is different and that makes the work very interesting.”


 OCENET’s Geoff Best with Intercultural development Inventory (IDI) workshop facilitator Hamelin Grange at a cultural competency workshop for OCENET staff

 Greeting Spanish teachers sponsored by the Fundación Amancio Ortega (FAO) upon their arrival at the Ottawa International Airport

 (l-r) Geoff Best and Kathy Scheepers of OCENET, with John-Patrick Healey, teacher chaperone, with the Yamate- Gakuin student exchange


#4: OCENET is widely recognized as an international education leader both in Canada and overseas. How has this reputation been achieved?

GB: “OCENET is the OCDSB to the outside world, and the OCDSB has a great reputation because the international students who come here are well served by our schools. Word of mouth cannot be underestimated. If a school is welcoming to an international student, the message gets out and other students will follow. These days, with the immediacy of texting, first impressions count, and OCENET and Ottawa schools receive very few complaints from parents who are sending their children to study here. One of the main reasons for our growth is the reputation of our school district.”

#5. You have spoken about the “reciprocal benefits” that international students and teachers bring to the OCDSB. What are some of those “reciprocal benefits”?

GB: “International students bring different perspectives about their country and share them as they get to know local students here. Friendships are made. In speaking with schools and Homestay families, I am aware of many cases where Canadian families will travel to another country to meet up with our international students and their families overseas. These are often visits to countries that local families would never have gone to in the past.

Also, more and more teachers are encouraging our international students to share facets of their home culture and thus bridge cultural understanding. We’ve also had teachers go to other countries to do some teaching and we are trying to encourage more of these opportunities.”

#6. What challenges have come with the growth in the number of international students?

GB: “With close to 1,000 international students, as well as the short term groups, and several 100 people directly or indirectly involved in supporting our international students, OCENET is a very busy place. OCENET is truly a “network,” involving our local staff, OCDSB schools, Homestay families, educational agents in other countries, governmental agencies, and many others.

With growth has come issues of capacity and ways of placing the students strategically to support schools with declining enrollments and to spread the opportunities for cultural diversity across the district. We are more conscious about which countries students come from to avoid relying upon just one or two countries, and we are working on ways to build long-term sustainable partnerships with select schools abroad.”

#7. As Executive Director of OCENET, what are you most proud of?

GB: “OCENET has grown a great deal in 20 years, and I am proud to say that we have a dedicated staff who has grown and adapted to the challenges. Many staff members have been here for10-15 years and have helped forge the positive reputation we have both nationally and internationally. OCENET continually strives to improve and innovate. We work hard to serve the inbound students well and, at the same time, we are encouraging more students to go abroad with initiatives like the International Certificate Program and the student and staff international education bursaries.”

#8. What is the future direction for OCENET?

GB: : “OCENET will continue to maintain and improve its present course and promote the value of Canadian students having opportunities for learning experiences in other countries and developing cultural competencies.”

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