On the final day of Camp Aurora, Nikolai Bola watched as 40 LGBTQ youth he’d just spent a week mentoring put on a talent show. The individual acts don’t stand out in his memory as much as the event’s atmosphere: supportive, encouraging and joyful.
It’s was a far cry from what was once a typical day spent toiling away on the highways, but Bola had a transformative year after leaving his road construction career and attending Red River College’s Business Administration program. Walking away from the steady income that had provided him with a house, two new cars and a comfortable life wasn’t an easy choice, but Bola — who recently won the College’s Rebel Generation Alumni Award — says the short-term sacrifices have been more than balanced by long-term gains.
“I knew I needed to go back to school for a while,” says Bola, who began his decade in road construction at age 19, without a high school diploma. “Eventually I decided there wasn’t ever going to be a ‘right time,’ so I had to cut my losses and try it out.”
Having originally registered for Civil Engineering Technology due to his work experience, Bola made a last-minute shift to Business Administration, where he could pursue “broader learning objectives that would open up many different jobs.” He’d realized Civil Engineering might send him right back to the highway he was trying to leave, whereas the Business programs could provide him new horizons to explore. Pushing his doubts down, he signed the forms.
Changing his career trajectory would add more financial uncertainty to his decision to head back to school, but Bola had a strategy: take as many courses as he could, as quickly as possible, to speed his re-entry to the workforce.
A passing conversation derailed his plans, though.
“The president of the [RRC] Students’ Association saw me in the hallway and started speaking to me about student government,” Bola recalls. Though he had reacclimatized to school and was already starting to enjoy his Business courses, Bola was aware he didn’t have any white-collar work on his resume. “There I was, almost 30 years old, without experience in an office or in a staff setting. I thought it would be important to my future.”
The catch? To serve on the Students’ Association, he’d need to stretch his schooling out from two years to three — yet another costly decision. But there were leadership opportunities he’d never considered in his previous life: the chance to influence one of the province’s key institutions, and the chance to shape the lives of other Manitobans trying to better their skills and careers.
“If I’m going to sacrifice financially, I’m going to make it count,” Bola recalls, of what finally led him to run for — and win — the role of Vice-President Internal.
Since taking the position, he’s been trying to make it count for other students. Along with managing the Association’s finances and liaising with student groups, Bola has mentored first-year Business Administration students while also taking part in the College’s intercultural connection program.
He’s also worked with RRC’s Diversity and Intercultural Services office to expand the number of gender-neutral washrooms on campus to improve inclusivity — a partnership that planted the idea in his mind of one day opening a youth centre for transgender youth.
In the meantime, Bola is juggling his leadership work with a sizable class workload. “Math is not my strong suit, so taking accounting and business math has made me work a lot harder than I’ve had to in a long time,” he says. “It’s really nice to prove to yourself you can do something.”
While he doesn’t have the financial comforts of his previous work, the rising leader has found the rewards of his role so compelling, he plans to continue his studies after Red River College.
For now, though, it seems he’s already mastered the art of following through on a cost-benefit analysis.
Learn more about RRC’s Rebel Generation Alumni Award, which is available to students enrolled in full-time RRC programs whose parents or guardians are alumni or apprentice-graduates of RRC.
— Profile by Matt TenBruggencate (Creative Communications, 2013)