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Crossing the Mountains for Massage School: Why BC students keep choosing Vicars

Did you know that over the past four years, one in every four students enrolled at Vicars School commuted each month from their homes and jobs in BC to Calgary or Edmonton for their massage therapy training?

Vicars offers an exceptional education that prepares graduates for all aspects of a successful massage therapy career, from anatomy to treatment planning to business skills. And regular readers will know that Vicars School is accredited by the same body that accredits massage schools in BC where massage and massage education are regulated.

But BC has several excellent accredited massage programs, too. So what’s so special about Vicars that inspires so many students to choose us, despite the time, inconvenience, and cost of travelling to Alberta each month?

We chatted with recent Vicars grads Ainslie Conway and Andrew Wautier to uncover why they chose Vicars.

Ainslie Conway knew that she wanted to be a registered massage therapist (RMT). She also knew that she wanted to keep living in Whistler, BC while she went back to school.

The one thing that she wasn’t sure about was whether she’d be able to find a school that would give her both the high-quality education and the flexible student experience she was looking for.

In addition to raising two young children, Ainslie and her husband own Back In Action Physiotherapy clinic in Whistler. She wanted to find a massage therapy program that would give her the most thorough training possible, given the sacrifices in time, livelihood, and family attention that going back to school would require. She also wanted to make sure her training would match the quality of the other services delivered at the clinic.

“We have high-level athletes among our clientele, and we have the Canadian Snowboard physiotherapy team and the Canadian ski cross physiotherapist lead working with us,” Ainslie says. “Expectations are high.”

And then—as if her standards weren’t high enough already—life threw another challenge her way. The Covid pandemic erupted just as Ainslie was researching massage therapy programs.

“I found that none of the colleges I talked to in British Columbia had a solid plan about how to train or offer clinical hours during Covid, while Vicars School had been offering blended-learning programs for decades and had a plan in place,” she says.

She had already hired several Vicars graduates at the physiotherapy clinic, and had been impressed by their performance, work ethic, and ability. Vicars School’s much lower tuition cost was also a factor in her decision.

The Vicars program is a full-time blended-learning experience, consisting of four in-person classroom days per month and on-campus student clinics. Between classes, students work from home, using high-quality online learning and study-at-home materials. The online work generally takes 15-20 hours a week.

The unique combination of a blended learning schedule and an education that meets the national curriculum standards means that Vicars attracts students from all over western Canada, the Territories, and beyond. The vast majority of them—25% of all Vicars students in the last four years alone—are from BC.

Because she lives in Whistler, Ainslie found the time restraint of flying into and staying in Calgary every month about the same as if she had attended a Monday-Friday program in Vancouver.

“I would have been driving five hours a day, every day to go to school in Vancouver,” she says. “And I would also have had to go into the student clinic on weekends.”

To get the most out of her visits to Alberta, Ainslie tacked on a couple of extra days to her stay in Calgary each month to earn her clinical hours at the Vicars student clinic. She was able to keep her travel costs down by teaming up with her fellow out-of-towners—including three other students from Whistler, who became her car-pool buddies to and from the airport.

Including Ainslie, there were nine students in that monthly class who travelled from outside Alberta for school: seven from BC, and two from Saskatchewan. Once pandemic restrictions were eased, the nine of them shared a house when they were in Calgary. Beyond just saving them money on accommodation, having the house (complete with kitchen and laundry room) meant they could travel with only carry-on luggage, eat better and more cheaply, and have a support system while away from home.

Back at home, Ainslie’s husband took on more of the household responsibilities, and her mother pitched in with childcare when needed. While the blended learning pathway was not easy for her and her family, Ainslie says the positives very much outweighed the negatives.

“It was great for the family because the kids saw what it was like to learn as an adult,” she says. “They were even involved in my studying, with colouring and drawing diagrams.”

Ainslie also found it led to better communication with her husband, both personally and professionally.

“He has three physiotherapy degrees and has worked for three Olympics, so he’s very experienced and was a great resource,” Ainslie says. “But massage is a different perspective, and I was able to identify when I needed his knowledge and when I didn’t.”

Ainslie was able to work part-time in her first year of study by allocating 40 hours a week to her schoolwork and filling in at Back In Action around her studies.

“In my second year, I definitely had to reduce my work hours. There’s a lot to learn and a lot of practice time required, and I wanted to ensure I could dedicate the time to be the best that I could be.”

Reality check: she remembers that to balance the full-time commitment of blended learning, she had to take some me-time when she returned from Calgary each month.

“It’s a very heavy content load and by Sunday my brain would be exhausted from trying to absorb everything. I found it important to take the Monday off when I got home, just to process it all and regroup.”

Ainslie graduated from Vicars in June 2022. Before she could practice professionally in BC, however, she needed to pass the board exams in a regulated province. Like many Vicars graduates, she chose to write her exams with the College of Massage Therapists of Newfoundland and Labrador. She was then able to transfer her registration to BC and works as an RMT at the Back in Action Clinic.

Like Ainslie, Andrew Wautier travelled from BC to Alberta each month to train at Vicars. Andrew flew from Prince George and graduated from the Edmonton campus in 2022.

As a certified athletic therapist who works in disability management for the Prince George health authority, Andrew wanted to offer more one-on-one treatment to his clients to improve their outcomes. The problem was that his services were not currently covered by benefits programs.

“As an RMT in a clinic setting, my clients would have their massage therapy covered through benefits and insurance programs,” Andrew explains.

Andrew looked into options for massage therapy training in BC, but with a full-time job and a young family, the requirement to attend daily classes for two years made it impossible. A friend told him about Vicars School of Massage Therapy’s blended learning program, and he enrolled in early 2020.

He flew into Edmonton once a month, staying with his sister and tacking an extra day onto each stay to fulfill his clinic requirements. In the two-year period, he only had one flight delay that set him back a day and one month where he missed an entire trip because Covid.

“The blended learning program is great for adult learners who have to keep full-time jobs and have families, and who know what their time is worth,” Andrew says. “Vicars did a fantastic job of that in terms of balancing people’s time.”

Kathleen Thurber
Author: Kathleen Thurber

Kathleen Thurber is an Edmonton-based health and science writer.