Co-op Q&A: Kelsey-Rae Russell

Kelsey-Rae testing salinity at Sturgeon Bank in Richmond, BC

What inspired you to join the co-op program?

I had a lot of friends who had graduated with BA’s in Geography who had not done co-op and they were unable to get jobs in their fields of study as a result. In fact, many of them say that not doing co-op was their biggest regret when it came to their approach to university. When I joined co-op, it was my intention to do one four-month term, just to have something to put on my resume. I have now been working for 23 months, and I have 3 more to go. I haven’t decided if I’ll apply for more terms yet. I’ve really enjoyed the experience. Not only that, but when I transferred to SFU, I had debt in the 5 figure range. I have made enough money through co-op to pay that off, and pay the rest of my tuition. Obviously it is unusual to do 5 or 6 co-op terms, but it has been a very valuable networking tool, resume builder and it comes with the added bonus of paying the bills. Not only that, but I’ve worked for some very diverse organizations, which has given me a feel for what I do and do not enjoy to do for work and refined my educational direction in the process. Now, when I select courses, I am careful to choose ones that will allow me to explore interests that I have discovered through my co-ops. These are things I know will translate to marketable knowledge and skills after graduation.

Where did you work for your Co-op work terms? What was your role and what did you do?

Agricultural Land Commission, GIS Technician, 2 terms – this was great as a first co-op position. The organization is small and the staff were friendly. I worked on digitizing historical land use records. Although this was a GIS technician position, I was also able to learn a lot about planning, which is the career that I would like to get into. I made many connections with the planners at the ALC that I still have today. In fact, last month, I had an interview for a planning position there. I attribute my ability to get an interview before I have even graduated with my BA to co-op. We will see if a job offer comes from this!

Agricultural Land Commission, Resource Assistant, 1 term – I worked in the compliance and enforcement department, which was in need of administrative support. This position allowed me to become acquainted with rural land use policy. Policy and policy interpretation are things I have always had a keen interest in, so working directly with the policy to interpret compliance and enforcement issues was very interesting.

TransLink, GIS Technician, 2 terms – Mapping, data management, spatial analysis, here I had the opportunity to work with planners on their projects as well, as I was very vocal about wanting to be a planner and TransLink was very receptive to helping employees grow in the ways that they wish to grow, so to speak. I worked on dozens of GIS related projects, with many of them analytical in nature. The work was quite diverse, and the GIS team there was a lot of fun to work with. Some of the planners at TransLink also had mutual connections with planners at the ALC. I was able to use this to build relationships with them and over time, I began working on a couple of planning projects when there was less GIS work to do. I did some public communications work on the route changes that were being made at the time, and I ran some GIS analyses for the planning department which would be used to make decisions on the location and spacing of bus stops in the downtown core

Port of Vancouver, Environmental Coordinator 1.5 terms (6 months) – Here, I work in two different departments: Habitat Enhancement and Infrastructure Sustainability. For the habitat enhancement program, I mostly coordinate projects, which involves knowing who needs to be involved, in what, and when, to get things done. This work is very rewarding and feel-good, as the focus of the habitat program is obviously to build and restore habitat. One project that is ongoing right now, for example, is the restoration of a salt marsh in New Brighton Park. This will provide habitat for juvenile salmon and other species which need shelter in the Burrard Inlet. For the Infrastructure Sustainability department, I am providing support to the Environmental Assessment process which the new Terminal 2 project is currently undergoing. This means lots of meetings, lots of emails, lots of summary reports, and some research. The Environmental Impact Statement for this project is diverse, covering socioeconomic, biophysical, and aboriginal issues… which means there has been lots of room to explore various interests of mine. This position requires a lot of skills that planners possess, such as time management, project management, written communication, and teamwork skills.

What has been the most amazing part of your Co-op experience?

All the people I have met have really made the experience awesome. When you are passionate about something, as I am about planning, talk to everybody about it. People who have knowledge and experience are dying to share it with young, passionate people – you just need to speak up. Asking people for informational interviews has also been valuable. While it is a formal conversation, it can lead to more informal interactions which are really where relationship building occurs.

What have you learned through your Co-op experience?

It has reaffirmed over and over again that I want to be a planner. I went into co-op with this in mind, and through my three positions I have met a large variety of planning professionals. Having been able to talk with them and see their satisfaction with their work has been very valuable. It makes applying for grad school seem much less risky, as I now know what type of doors it will open for me. I’ve also worked with a lot of people who have gone to schools all over the country and gained their perspectives on what is and isn’t good in each program. Secondly, I’ve become more confident in professional settings, which I think is an important trait to develop.

What advice do you have for students just starting their Co-op experience?

If you are starting your first term, pay special attention to the dynamics and norms of the office. Be professional at all times, and try to integrate into the team early on in your terms. Even if you feel shy or under confident, wander into areas where you can start up conversations and get to know people, and don’t be afraid to ask people what they’re working on or about their opinions and experiences of their career. As I said before, people want to share what they know with young, passionate people, so never be afraid to ask questions. Co-op will be your single most valuable networking tool in university.

What advice would you share with new co-op students seeking their first work term?

Especially if you are looking for a summer position, you may experience a lot of rejection at first. I applied to many, many positions before getting any interviews, and then I had to go to several interviews before I was offered a position. I think it took me 2 terms to find a position. When I got one, it was an 8 month position for fall and spring, meaning I would be missing a lot of course offerings. Although I thought I only wanted a 4 month summer job when I began, it was well worth taking that 8 month fall position. Another piece of advice I’d like to emphasize is to apply to the types of places that you think you’d like to work, rather than focusing on what the actual job is. I’ve obviously had a lot of positions that are related to planning, but none of them are planning positions. My experience is no less valuable for that, as I have met so many planners and been exposed to their work, and gained a lot of skills which will carry through into my planning career, when that begins.

Can you share a challenge you faced in your Co-op and how you overcame it?

Occasionally I came up on projects where I had no idea how to do what I needed to do. For example, at TransLink, I had to create a spreadsheet which could complete calculations by pulling data from several different tables in order to run an analysis on bus usage across the region. Not being very confident in math or excel, I was nervous when this project was handed off to me. I am the type of person that does not like to admit they don’t know something (although sometimes that is necessary and even a good thing to do, I try to problem solve on my own, and make asking my manager for help a last resort whenever possible). Instead of bumbling around google trying to figure out how to address this very specific set of problems, I spoke to some friends who I knew were good with excel about my issue. Through them I was able to come up with a work plan and get through the project in less time than I was given to do it. Use all the resources you have available to you to get the job done.

Describe your co-op interview experience.

I’ve gone to a lot of interviews. Some went well, many went embarrassingly poorly, and there were also a surprising number of instances where I was the second best candidate, which can be very frustrating. Although there were times when I felt discouraged, it’s important to remember that a co-op job search is like any other job search. You cannot expect to walk into a position without putting in a lot of preparation. Overall, I’d say having had so many interviews has been beneficial because I now have experience answering many common questions. You’ll find most interviews now-a-days pose behavioural questions, so be sure to have stories prepared for those.

How was your transition to the workplace?

I had been working for 10 years prior to joining co-op, so my transition was fairly easy, as I already knew how to present myself with a level of professionalism, but I have heard from some of my co-op managers that not all students know how to act professionally or with tact at the work place. Keep in mind that you are being evaluated in one way or another every day at work. Not because you are a co-op student, but because you are a paid employee. Always aim to exceed expectations.