MaKami College started as a dream to help people improve their lives by removing barriers of entry to education and success.
MaKami College’s CEO Marija Pavkovic-Tovissi immigrated to Canada as a youth. Like many immigrants, the Pavkovic family lived below the poverty line when they arrived. “I watched my parents struggle and work hard to build a new life in our new home, which meant working long hours trying to financially provide for our family.”
Pavkovic-Tovissi’s mother Ljubica had a passion for learning and was determined to succeed. She quickly realized becoming re-educated was the key to her family’s success, and she began applying to post-secondary programs.
As an immigrant child, Pavkovic-Tovissi learned English more quickly than their parents because of the language immersion she received in school. As a result, she would often attend post-secondary orientations with her parents to act as a translator. “I remember being at one college and they said, ‘look to your left, look to your right, half of you will not make it to graduation.’ This statement shocked Pavkovic-Tovissi. “They seemed genuinely proud of that statement, not aware of the consequences for those who would turn out to be unsuccessful in their attempts.” Even as a teenager that incident did not sit well with her, and it was experiences such as those that planted a seed of passion within her to help people experiencing struggles in their journey to improving themselves. This was also the humble foundation in which MaKami College was built in 2001.
“I wanted to create an educational institution with a positive learning environment, where we could work with students to remove any of the barriers to entry and success, where providing support services with language, financial situations or even learning disabilities was our number one priority,” says Pavkovic-Tovissi.
MaKami’s Flagship Program
MaKami’s first flagship program was the Massage Therapy program. “My mom was a nurse, and she became interested in massage therapy as a way to help her patients and her friends and family,” Pavkovic-Tovissi explains. “At that time the standards for massage therapy were very low – you could take a 500-hour course and be considered a massage therapist.” Pavkovic-Tovissi was taken aback by this. “With my mom being a nurse, she was aware of all the anatomy, physiology and more medical aspects that went into becoming a successful massage therapist. We knew there was no way you could be an effective massage therapist with only 500 hours of training because the scope of work for therapists was expanding. However, the education at the time had not caught up to the demands of that career.”
There was also a negative reputation of massage in general at that time. “It was something we wanted to overcome in the province – to have massage therapy be recognized as a legitimate profession in the health care field,” she says.
Pavkovic-Tovissi recruited local and national medical professionals to work with her mom – everything from massage therapists, nurses, chiropractors, physiotherapists, and even medical doctors. Together, they helped create the first curriculum for the program, which began with 1,000 hours. “That was the highest available option we could license in the province at that time,” she says. “It was the first program of its kind in the province and was the foundation for our first-year program today.”
The first massage therapy class had eight students, mostly made up of newcomers to Canada who were looking for an opportunity to improve their lives. Pavkovic-Tovissi and her mom rented a space in Sherbrooke Elementary School in Edmonton’s west end and renovated two large classrooms with some offices to accommodate tables, desks, a clinic, kitchen, and cleaning area. Those eight students all finished successfully and referred their friends and family for the next class, which had 24 new students.
“Initially we never had to advertise.” Pavkovic-Tovissi says. “All of our students came to us as referrals from successful graduates that had their lives changed at MaKami College, and they wanted to encourage others to do the same.”
A passion for helping others grows
Pavkovic-Tovissi knew she was living a purpose driven life and following her passion of helping others. “Having newcomers in the first program was enlightening and incredibly satisfying,” she says. “These people had families they were trying to feed and care for with just bare minimum resources, in low paying jobs. They struggled with many challenges, but they inspired us which empowered us to keep going. We knew we were making an impact that went far beyond just education.”
As the Pavkovic family began helping more and more people, their classes continued to grow, and the program itself continued to adapt. “We began finding people to help students with services like free ESL, free tutoring and counselling, and that was the beginning of our Student Academic Learning Team (SALT),” Pavkovic-Tovissi says. “We also expanded our massage therapy program to 3,000 hours which is still the highest level of training available in Canada and the world today.”
As the college grew, their space also needed to grow to accommodate the increasing number of staff and students. In 2006, the school moved to a bigger space in Edmonton’s Capilano Mall, eventually finding their home in Bonnie Doon Mall’s 110,000 sq. ft. current facility in 2019.
In 2013 the college opened its first campus in Calgary in the city’s southwest. Today that campus has also expanded to a 137,000 sq. ft. space in the city’s Marlborough Mall.
No longer solely a massage therapy school, MaKami now sees thousands of students come through its door each year taking various programs, such as Health Care Aide, Business Administration, Medical Office Assistant, Personal Training, Master Instructor, Alberta Basic Security Training and more, with new programs launching annually.
The support available to the students has also grown substantially. “We may have grown, but our passion and goals still remain the same,” says Pavkovic-Tovissi. “We strive to provide a positive learning environment and assist students with overcoming physical, mental and socio-economical barriers to achieve their educational dreams. This growth has included an expansion of services for its students and the use of innovative technologies such as iPad-based curriculums, 3D anatomy apps and research into the use of augmented reality and virtual reality in the classrooms.
Over two and a half decades later, the founding family’s passion is still to help people and that has only become stronger over time, and they have only become more determined.
“I love getting up in the morning and going to work,” Pavkovic-Tovisssi says. “I get to help students be lifted out of poverty, out of abusive situations and I get to see their lives change dramatically. At graduations I sometimes get to see these little children who get to watch their parents graduate, and I see myself through their eyes. I know that their lives will never be the same and knowing that I have played some small role in that continues to feed my passion and purpose.”
Pavkovic-Tovissi co-founded a registered charity in the Province of Alberta that helps immigrants and newcomers overcome barriers to education. Her efforts in business, philanthropy and our community have been recognized across the province. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, some of which include:
- Recipient of the Alberta Newcomer Recognition Award, Women’s Newcomer Impact Category, 2023
- Recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, 2023
- Women of Inspiration Award, Advocate & Catalyst for Change, 2017
- A Top 40 Under 40 by Avenue Magazine, 2016
- Named a Calgary Game Changer, 2015
- Named a Leader of Tomorrow from Business in Calgary magazine, 2015
- Recipient of the Calgary White Hat Award, 2014
- WOI Recipient of the Diamond Champion of the Community – Fierce Award, 2014
- Named one of Profit 500’s Fastest Growing Companies, 2014
- Named one of Chatelaine’s Profit W100 Top Female Entrepreneur, 2014
MaKami’s overall work has not gone unnoticed in the province. In March 2023, the college was designated an Independent Academic Institution in the province of Alberta, joining now the distinguished list of 27 public post-secondary institutions in our province.
“We are very excited for this change,” says Pavkovic-Tovissi. “MaKami College looks forward to this new partnership and working together to improve adult education by removing barriers to learning and success. Students can look forward to new transfer credits, and more support programs. The college intends to further pursue more opportunities in research and development and looks forward to partnering with industry and our fellow Alberta Institutions in the public sector.”