At the age of 24, Sherri Bell booked a one way ticket from Calgary to the small mountain town of Cavalese in Italy. The locals didn’t speak English and she didn’t speak Italian, but she sensed an entrepreneurial opportunity to bridge the linguistic divide.
“It was the early 1980s and aerobics were first starting,” she says. “I found a gym and I worked with Italians who were familiar with the Jane Fonda craze.”
Her efforts led to a business that provided the community’s first aerobics classes for women. It was an astute move.
“I started out with posters behind me, with words on it that I could say phonetically. By the end of the first week, women were coming from towns all around. I taught classes four nights a week.”
After a year in Italy, she returned to Canada having acquired lifelong friends and new language skills. “By the time I’d left, I could speak Italian fairly well.”
The experience is typical of Bell’s entrepreneurial drive and passion for lifelong learning.
Bell was raised in Montreal and Calgary. She graduated from the University of Calgary with a degree in education. When she was 28, she became a vice-principal and at 30, was offered a principal position in the small town of Youbou near Lake Cowichan. It was a challenge she accepted enthusiastically, while also balancing the demands of raising a young daughter and a master’s program in curriculum development and leadership.
“I lived in a little cabin on the beach,” she recalls. “I stayed there for two years and had an amazing experience with incredible staff.”
A key learning was the value of bringing out the best of people through collaboration.
“You can’t as a leader own it yourself, you have to own it as a group,” she says. “I think it’s about creating opportunities for other people to lead – a shared leadership model – but in the end, I knew that accountability stopped with me.”
She built upon this collaborative approach when she moved to the Kootenays for four years to work as an instructor at the College of the Rockies as well as to serve as a consultant with the Ministry of Education in curriculum assessment and evaluation.
During this time, she got to know the public school system throughout the province. “I travelled a lot and visited the majority of school districts in B.C. I also taught and did practicum supervision and student teacher placement.”
In 1996, she moved to Victoria to become principal of James Bay Community School. She has lived on the Island ever since. From 2001 to 2015, she served in senior leadership roles with the Greater Victoria School District.
While superintendent of schools, one of her main priorities was increasing success for indigenous students.
“We embedded this focus in our leadership meetings and in our daily practice. Our collective goal was to ensure that Aboriginal students felt a sense of belonging and success.”
Bell was appointed president of Camosun College on July 1, 2015. Over the past year she has gotten to know the staff, faculty and students at both campuses, ensuring that she supports the collective talents of the college’s people.
Her leadership comes at a critical time as Camosun’s new strategic plan prioritizes innovation, sustainability, community engagement, indigenization and a student experience second to none.
“It’s about identifying the things we value as a college, and the goals that we want to achieve together,” she notes. “For example, providing support and service for students that are the best in the province is important to me. We’ve reassigned roles internally to make that happen. As a leader, I think it’s important to have opportunities for people to lead within the organization, because there are many people who can lead from where they are and they need to know that the organization values that.”
Welcoming the increasing number of international students studying at Camosun, Bell often reflects on her time in Italy.
“I encourage them to experience the culture here as much as they possibly can, because at the time they may not realize it, but what they learn about themselves and about other people will shape who they are in the future.
“In my heart I’m an educator, it’s who I am,” she says.