Co-op Q&A: Marina Miller

At my desk working on a GIS task (note the number of maps!).

1.     Where did you work?

I did a four-month term with TransLink (the South Coast British Columbia Transportation Authority). Their head office is located in New Westminster.

2.     What was your role (what type of work did you do)? What were some of your responsibilities?

My title was “Student Transportation Planner (GIS)” at TransLink. I worked in a small division that specializes in Geographic Information Systems within the Infrastructure Program Management department. They focus primarily on managing and creating spatial data products for clients regarding the Major Road Network (MRN), truck routes, SkyTrain, and others. I assisted with numerous GIS-related tasks to organize and create datasets for regional transportation projects.

I was often doing research to develop my technical skills, and applied these to tasks involving data creation, management, and presentation for both internal and external clients. For example, I spent several weeks manually digitizing Computer-Aided Design (CAD) drawings into Esri ArcMap and managing their metadata.

3.     How did the skills/knowledge developed in the classroom apply to your job? What did you learn?

Geographical concepts and experience with spatial analysis software from my coursework definitely applied to my Co-op. Classes like GEOG 255 (GIS I) provided base knowledge. Aside from technical aspects, I was able to apply general organizational and time-management skills as well.

The world of transportation planning is something I have only briefly touched on in school, and I’ve learned so much about the inner-workings of how our region moves and operates. TransLink recently rolled out a new slogan: “To always put you first – your safety, your time, and your connection to the people and places that matter most”. I am proud to have contributed, even if just a little bit, to this vision.

Learning to work with many types of people with different objectives, timelines, and personalities was a valuable aspect of Co-op. Even in my department there was a wide variety of professions, experience levels, and working styles. I hope every Co-op term will help me improve my adaptability in the workplace as it did at TransLink.

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

Receiving challenging and unfamiliar tasks right off the bat made me feel that I didn’t have enough experience for the job. This isn’t a negative thing, but it resulted in a steep learning curve. My strategies to overcome this challenge were to balance independent solution-seeking and asking questions, to take notes, and to assure my work is being done correctly through progress checks. Overall, open and clear communication is the most important part of succeeding in a role you may feel unequipped for. You can make the job suit you by asserting your strengths while still showing a willingness to learn. My ability to organize, communicate, and learn quickly helped balance gaps in my technical knowledge.

Based on this experience, it is important to note that Co-op students shouldn’t dismiss a job posting just because they lack a couple of the listed requirements. If you present yourself well enough, you may still get hired.

Totem poles in Stanley Park seen on a departmental field trip.
Fellow TransLink Co-op students and I at a celebratory lunch before the end of our work terms.

5.     What was your most memorable Co-op experience?

Our department got to go on a half-day “field trip” to Stanley Park this summer. We were taken on an engaging and informative tour of the park after a team lunch. This was a great way to get to know some of my senior coworkers, as well as my Co-op buddies. A second trip took us to the New Westminster Museum’s “People Gotta Move” exhibit, which showcases a spectacular LEGO model of New West’s transportation network.

In the office, connecting with other Co-op students and participating in career development opportunities were some of the most memorable aspects of my work term.

6.     What have you learned through your Co-op experience?

Previous to this work term, I had never worked full time. I adjusted well to the 9-5 routine, and greatly enjoyed the homework-free evenings/weekends! Though, I did begin to miss my studies and was excited to go back to school in the fall.

Aside from the new routine, I observed and learned a great deal about corporate structure, office etiquette, and the importance of networking with colleagues and other students. Connections are everything, especially once you’ve graduated and need a starting point for your independent career. I intend to stay in contact with my superiors, colleagues, and Co-op friends in the future.

7.     What advice do you have for future Co-op students?

I waited until second year to apply for Co-op; I was hesitant to start right away. There’s nothing wrong with taking the first year to adjust to university life (if you were an incoming high school student like myself), but there is so much value in jumping right in. Now that I’ve pushed past the difficulties of finding my first placement, I hope it will be easier moving onto the next. I am excited by the possibility of doing an international or out-of-province placement. Co-op has revealed itself as one of the best ways to get the most out of my time at SFU.

My first Co-op term was amazing, challenging, and inspiring. I met several other students who have become my good friends. I now have a widened perspective on the options you have to strengthen your career while still in school. I can’t recommend SFU Co-op enough, and I can’t wait to see what (and where) my next placement will be.