New Brunswick

Ontario students hope to give Campobello Islanders more reasons to stay

Students from the University of Guelph in Ontario spent two weeks on Campobello Island this spring at the request of the community, which is looking for fresh ideas about how to sustain itself.

Students from University of Guelph spend 2 weeks on island as part of research into sustainable future

Students from the University of Guelph in Ontario were invited to Campobello Island for two weeks this spring to engage with the community and suggest ideas for how it can sustain itself. (Submitted by Shoshanah Jacobs)

Students from the University of Guelph in Ontario spent two weeks on Campobello Island this spring at the request of the community, which is looking for fresh ideas about how to sustain itself.

Mayor Stephen Smart described the future of the community as "a little shaky" because of the heavy dependence on the seasonal industries of fishing and tourism.

The goal is to provide more opportunities on the island and a reason for people to stay.  

Over the past 15 years, he said, Campobello's population has dwindled to about 800 people, and it faces problems with illegal dumping and dangerous vacant buildings. The island is accessible by ferry for only four months of the year, although it has access by bridge to Maine.

"We do care deeply about our community and we've been kind of in a holding pattern a little bit, trying to come up with a good idea that would create some jobs and employment opportunities," Smart said in an interview with Information Morning Saint John.

A Campobello Island resident suggested approaching Guelph for help.

Students at the university began researching the island in January as part of an experiential learning course in business consulting.

"Having someone else come in and say, 'Well, this may work,' or, 'This may be something that you should explore,' is a good idea," Smart said. "Sometimes you're too close to a problem, and you can't really see the way out.

"Or you think it's a problem just because you've experienced it for so long and another set of eyes can say, 'Well this may be a benefit to your community, you just have to know how to use it.'"

Outside the classroom

The course is led by two professors at the University of Guelph, Shoshanah Jacobs of the integrative biology department and Ruben Burga of the college of business and economics.

Jacobs said that before they reached the island, the students had some ideas for how the community could have a more sustainable future, but "delightfully, everything changed" when they arrived.

The professors wanted the students to talk to people in the community and understand their perspective before designing solutions to complex economic issues.

Campobello Island is accessible by ferry for only four months of the year but can be reached by bridge from Maine. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"We wanted to understand what economic issues exist in isolated Canadian communities," Jacobs said.

"The students were particularly inspired by the resiliency and how they overcome access barriers that we in Toronto area don't even think about."

Burga said this is the first year the university has offered a field course in business.

"Campobello Island was chosen because it is an isolated community with some challenges in its economic developments, and it is a part of Canada, but it's a difficult place to get to, so it was an ideal community to work with and engage with," he said.

Individual students are still working on their ideas, which will be presented in a report to Campobello.

Building a relationship

Jenna Zanki, one of the nine students who went to Campobello, said she hadn't heard of the island until she decided to enrol in the class.

"I just did kind of a quick Google search before I enrolled in the course and found out where it was and the general size and population, but that was about it," Zanki said.  

Zanki had never been to New Brunswick before the trip to Campobello, famous as the place former U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a summer home.

"Even though it's kind of a small isolated place, it has, like, plenty of reasons to visit and things that make it special," she said.

Zanki wasn't sure island residents would be glad to see the students.

"Coming in as an outsider, I was worried about how they would accept us," she said.  

But she quickly learned people enjoyed having the students visit and were open to hearing their ideas.

"We're just very lucky that everyone was super nice to us and wanted to tell us their stories and connect with us and learn about what we're doing in school."

She said her classmates realized the importance of building a long-term relationship with the community and learning more about it before suggesting any concrete ways for how it could improve.

"I think before [we arrived] we had the more grandiose ideas, but when we got to the island, we realized how much there was to learn still," Zanki said.

She said the students are thinking about having a reunion on the island next summer and reconnecting with the people they met.

Students and professors who spent two weeks on Campobello, included, in front, from left, Jenna Zanki, Chloe Spear and Diana McGill, and in back, from left, Shoshanah Jacobs, Ruben Burga, Sabrina Sylvestre, Antoni Coasley, Jackson Boyle, Meruna Ranjan and Carson Balestreri. (Submitted by Jenna Zanki)

"I would love to go back," Zanki said. "I've added some of the community members of Facebook and connected with them that way. Knowing that we have that support, that if we were to come back we could pick up where we left off because with everyone that we talked to, it was such a nice connection."

Smart said some students may even return for Campobello's annual Fog Fest in August.

About the Author

Sarah Morin

Reporter

Sarah Morin is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. Story tip? sarah.morin@cbc.ca