VIU is like a contained, thriving community. You can get your car fixed on campus, dine-in with a gourmet meal at The Discovery Room, or even get your hair cut.
There are over 20 trade and technical field programs at VIU, and yet they can still be overlooked by the wider student population.
Ocea Corfield calls this a “hidden underground, off-the-radar piece of VIU.” As a hairstyling student, she happens to be part of it. Corfield is completing the Hairstylist Level 2 (Apprenticeship) Program and going for her Interprovincial Red Seal Certification.
Corfield was about 13 when she first became interested in hairstyling, mostly because she had family members and friends who let her do “crazy stuff” with their hair.
She hadn’t thought it would lead to anything, but as she learned more about the hairstyling industry, she became interested in it as a career.
VIU’s Hairstylist Foundation Certificate Program was a draw to Corfield because the campus is close to her current home on Protection Island and the program is well-known across the country for its Red Seal Designation.
She entered the Hairstylist Foundation (Level 1) Program straight out of high school in September 2019 with help from the Career Technical Centre (CTC) program.
The CTC program is available to students at Nanaimo-Ladysmith Public Schools who want to enter a post-secondary trades program. Most students take it while still in high school to graduate with dual-credit for both the high school and university.
In the first few months, Corfield’s class did theory work, including client relations. She didn’t expect to be talking to people eight hours a day as part of her job. “I can be social if I have to, but … I’m not this extroverted, loud person at all,” she said.
However, Corfield has learned that it’s more about listening and communicating with other people than socializing.
“I feel that’s a misconception, that you have to be this amazing social butterfly [to be a hairstylist],” she reflected. “You have to be able to understand people.”
The students then learned practical work: the tools they’d be using, the different hairstyles, texturizing lengths, angles, perception.
They were also taught to identify skin diseases and bacteria on clients’ scalps. If a stylist discovers something concerning, they need to immediately refer the client to a doctor. Thanks to this training, stylists have identified cancerous moles and saved lives.
The Hairstylist program, 11 months long, was in the middle of its winter break when COVID-19 hit BC. The return to classes was delayed a week before VIU decided to switch to online learning. The shift was easier for Corfield, since she’d done online classes when homeschooling.
Regardless, the pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time. Corfield and her classmates had moved onto the salon floor to do hair and practice for their exams. But with the lockdown, all they could do was take quizzes and review theory work.
Fortunately, the Industry Training Authority (ITA), in charge of the Red Seal Program, allowed Corfield’s class to graduate a month early.
“There was nothing else for us to do,” Corfield explained. “We couldn’t come into the salon and cut [mannequins’ hair] all day. It was silly at that point.”
For final exams, the class did an online test and a practical test over Zoom, where they cut mannequins’ hair and did a wrap and foil.
The graduation ceremony was held over Zoom. Corfield gave a speech as the peer-voted class valedictorian, and awards were handed out for things like Most Capable and Most Growth. The Level 1 Certificate was mailed to students.
Some of the students were from out of province. Once VIU shut down due to the pandemic, they returned home.
“From before that winter break, I never saw all of us together again, which was super sad,” Corfield said.
Besides graduating during a pandemic, her class is unique for having all original eighteen students graduate. Most times, hairstylist classes start small and end smaller.
The class before Corfield’s started with almost twenty students and finished with twelve. Since the course is hour-based, students who miss five days of class or more during the program year are unable to continue.
After she graduated, Corfield started working at the Violet Hair Lounge (VHL) in downtown Nanaimo. She was lucky, as many of her classmates were unable to find work due to limited body space at salons.
Corfield didn’t feel prepared to take on clients due to not being able to practice on real people for so long.
“I was like, ‘I’m not ready to do clients. That’s not happening. That’s not a good idea!’” she said.
So, the founder of VHL Angie Gignac retrained her. Corfield helped with smaller tasks before getting her own clients, eventually becoming a fully booked commissioned stylist.
Corfield has been on a part-time, almost casual, basis at VHL since starting the Level 2 (Apprenticeship) Program in January 2022.
The first 12 weeks of Level 2 are done online; the last week is in-person, followed by the final exam. Most of the work is reviewing and expanding upon Level 1 concepts.
When asked what kind of styling she likes to do best, Corfield said she prefers cutting hair. In fact, she entered the hairstylist program prepared to be a barber.
However, she was blown away by the colouring side of hairdressing. There’s a lot of chemistry involving the pH scale and chemical balances of the products used to colour hair.
“When I got into school, the scientific part of colour took me away. It was like, ‘Woah, this is so cool.’”
Once Corfield graduated from the foundations program, she fell back in love with cutting hair. She likes doing women’s cuts, including pixies, bobs and textured cuts. She also likes alternative haircuts—the “whatever you want to do, I’m so down” styles—including mullets and shags.
The most important skill the Hairstylist program has taught Corfield is how to build relationships with people, including her classmates.
“It felt like [a] family, as weird as it is, because you’re with each other all day, four days a week,” she explained. “So you get really tight, and you end up helping each other.”
However, this closeness also made it difficult seeing others succeed in areas where you might be struggling, like seeing someone else get booked when you only have a few clients.
Corfield warned, “You have to check yourself and you have to make sure you’re happy for them, because they are probably struggling with other things that you’re great at.”
To graduates looking for a salon, she says: “It’s important to find something that feels like you’re supported by your fellow coworkers, that there is room to grow, and there’s room to be your type of stylist.”
Stylists also need to avoid burning themselves out and to not deliberately put themselves in uncomfortable situations. “[Don’t] rush yourself too much. It’s really important, when it comes to getting the education, to really commit to it and take the time to learn and continue learning.”
Overall, the Hairstylist program has been a great experience.
“It’s a really great course,” Corfield said with a smile. “Every time anyone ever asks me about hairdressing, it’s one of the things where I can’t not say that the Foundation course at VIU is awesome.”
The Hairstylist Foundation Program is offered at the Nanaimo, Cowichan, and Powell River VIU campuses and the Saanichton Learning Centre in Victoria. For details, visit the VIU Hairstylist Program page.
The VIU Hair Salon is open Monday–Thursdays, 9 am to 4 pm. To book an appointment, call 250-740-6115. To see prices for basic salon and colour services, visit the Salon Services page.