Monday, 15 April 2013

When degrees 'work'

This week's guest post comes from Jonathan Faerber, CAPS' Communications Intern extraordinaire!

About two years ago, CAPS and the Faculty of Arts created a joint initiative called the Arts Work Experience (AWE) program. I applied for the program on March 23, 2011. A year later, on March 23, 2012, I was interviewed for a communications position with CAPS, and am now wrapping up my one year internship to become the first ever University of Alberta student to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts Co-op Degree.

How did that all happen, and why did it happen? More importantly, what did I learn?

The truth is, I did not plan this: I certainly would never have guessed that I’d be writing this six years ago. I began my university degree in 2007 with limited work experience and with little idea, as with most students at an early age, of what I wanted to do with my life. Looking back, I can see I was not thinking about long-term career goals too much or, rather, I was thinking about my “career” in all the wrong ways: in terms of what class and what degree might hypothetically get me to careers I didn’t really know enough about to choose between. I was just like the next stereotyped “newbie”: the science first-year calling their degree pre-med, the arts undergrad going for law, or the engineering student studying, well, engineering and engineering only, just because.

But career success is never that easy to engineer. It’s not about taking A, B, and C courses, this or that degree, to get such and such a job. Not that there’s anything wrong with such goals; it’s just that goals, in and of themselves, don’t always tell us much about ourselves. But despite this, we still insist on worrying incessantly about our choice of classes and degree programs, even when we already have to worry about simply getting to class on time, feeding ourselves, finding a place to live, and so on. In my case, it was these other immediate worries of affording university life now, rather than obsessing over my future, that made me work things out.

And work I did. It took over two years of minimum-wage labour before I found a couple of jobs on campus. Around that time, I decided to major in English, and stumbled across the now-defunct English co-op program, which at the time I tried getting in on it, was already on its last legs.

So, in a way, I was watching for the AWE program when the e-mail from the Faculty of Arts arrived in my inbox about a year later. I would like to say at this point that the rest is history, but it really isn’t that simple. I had to learn how to write a resume/cover letter, and applied for five jobs and interviewed for four over a year before I landed this job (and a good thing too, since this was the best fit of the bunch).

Of course, working at CAPS taught me a lot about communications, about careers, and about myself. I gained a lot of technical know-how in print and web content, layout and design, social media, strategic marketing, and more. Along the way, I learned what kinds of things I like to do and began to think more about what I might do after this internship and what I would need to do to get there.

Career experts use the phrase “luck is no accident” to characterize this job search/career development type of story. I think this is true: I’m lucky to be here, but a lot of getting to where I am now had to do with taking chances and making an effort. Many students, I’m sure, can relate to this. We try out a lot of different things throughout our degree and make the most of what works when things do “work”.

But a whole lot of times, things don’t work out. And I think one of the great things about being a student, and about work experience programs especially, is that there’s a whole lot more room to try things that don’t work than there will be outside of school.

In the “real world”, for the most part, you aren’t allowed to make mistakes. Except you do, all the time. It’s called experience. So working in a setting that’s more forgiving of my mistakes allowed me to get that experience at a lower risk than I would have when stressing out, or worse, losing a job I might have gotten outside of the program, just because I wouldn’t yet know exactly what I’m doing.

In that way too, being able to try out a job before committing to long-term post-graduate plans helped a great deal. I found out that while I love working in communications and will use the skills I’ve learned over the past year throughout my career, I also really, really missed going to school and the many diverse challenges I’ve already overcome to complete a degree. And so, somewhat ironically, I’ve decided to return to more school this fall and do it all over again for my MA in philosophy.

When I tell people this, they look startled and say something like, “Well, that’s okay, I guess.” I don’t blame them. Before this internship, I had similar doubts about whether an Arts degree was a “smart” choice. If it weren’t for the AWE program, the encouragement of its staff, and the confidence it inspires in students, I might have spent a year or two after graduation—perhaps more—entertaining those doubts as well. But now I don’t have second thoughts: my internship taught me that studying Arts—that any university degree, for that matter—is by no means a dead-end, no more than it is a means to an end. Instead, this next experience will challenge me to step outside of my intellectual comfort zone and improve myself as a thinker, as a communicator, and as a person. Ultimately, I know I’ll use the skills I develop during the degree wherever I go, and that employers in our society will continue to rely on these, too, to build our future.

So now, when I notice students worrying about work and about what others think and if they will be lucky enough at all to land a great job I want to shake them up and say, “Hey, it’s not about them, it’s about you and improving yourself and making yourself so awesome that they’ll also be lucky to land you as a great employee.”

I’m lucky enough to have learned that lesson early.

And if you keep trying, you’ll make your “luck” happen too.

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