Sidestepping The Plan: My Co-op Reflection

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Sidestepping The Plan: My Co-op Reflection

By: Malinda Pathacharige | Health Sciences Co-op Student
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“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a seemingly simple question – something no one else can answer for you, and for which no answer could be considered incorrect. It’s no surprise that any kindergartner would be able to offer up a response without hesitation. Why then do we university students suffer a downright existential crisis the very moment we’re posed its equivalent: “What’s your plan after graduation?”

My high school teachers often referred to life after grade twelve as the “real world.” That may have been true for some, but I would argue that anyone who has pursued further education has postponed this impending rite of passage. University is far too predictable to be considered anything like the real world. We have all fallen into a routine four month pattern where we stress out over course selection, take it easy for a while, ingest a whole lot of coffee around midterms, and then enter full-out zombie mode for finals—all before celebrating our survival and repeating the cycle all over again.

In a lot of respects, although we consider “stress” a synonym for “university student,” the hardships of student life fail to compare with “real world” pressures, which are undeniably less predictable. As frustrating as it might be to not get into a desired course, it’s nothing like being unable to land a job. And while we can control many factors affecting whether we succeed in our coursework, job security within the workforce is something few can guarantee.

Exactly a year ago, after realizing I was three quarters of my way into my undergraduate career, I decided to do what I should’ve done in my first year—apply for Co-op. I had hesitated all that time due to the fact that Co-op does not guarantee a job placement. Looking back on that thought process now, I can’t figure out my logic. Perhaps those few extra years wised me up just a little, because I finally realized I wouldn’t be able to avoid a job search forever. In fact, I had about a year left of school before I would have no choice but to step out into the aforementioned “real world.” So, I decided I might as well experience the painful process of applying and facing rejection while I still had the fallback option of returning to school.

Although I try to have a pretty positive outlook on life, when I applied for Co-op I had no idea whether I would get a placement. If nothing else, I was simply hoping to hone my job search skills and get a taste of what it would be like to let go of the stability of student life upon graduation. I was initially doubtful of what kinds of positions would be applicable considering my pursuit of a BA in Health Sciences. With all these reservations and doubts, imagine my surprise when I ended up with a business co-op position within a tech company on the other side of Canada for 12 months!

Ever since the day of my job interview I have been striving to explain to everyone around me how I, a health sciences major, ended up at BlackBerry. Many people have questioned my decision, asking me what I hope to gain by spending a year working outside my field of study, especially within a company undergoing such a turbulent time. If you define “valuable work experience” as something that fits into a neatly organized career path you formulated back in Planning 10, then yes, I would agree it doesn’t make sense. Fortunately for me, I did not approach the co-op job posting database with that sort of filter in mind. With each job description I read, I thought to myself, “how can I make this fit?” rather than “does this fit?”  

This has long been my approach to volunteerism as well. If I see a posting, I never question whether it applies to health sciences. Instead I think of all the potential skills I could gain, people I could meet, and experiences I might have. If it’s something that excites me and has the potential to challenge me, I go for it. This approach has opened more doors for me than if I had restricted myself to only pursuing opportunities that neatly linked with my ultimate career goal. Any experience is positive because there is always something you can take away from it. By diversifying the range of experiences present on your resume, you not only prove yourself as an adaptable individual but you also increase the likelihood of encountering greater opportunities.

As a former Career Peer Educator at SFU Career Services, I have fully embraced the centre’s philosophy on career development: “There is no plan.” I originally construed this as something told to undeclared majors to assuage their anxiety, but I now realize this could apply to even those who have stuck with their childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.

I am happy with the major I chose back in first year, and the vision I had of what I hoped to be doing 10 years from now has not changed all that much. Yet, while I might have these hopes, I am in no position to guarantee they will become my reality. Forces like the economy, politics, and technology will continue to remain out of my control, and they will undoubtedly have an impact on my job prospects. Since the world around us is anything but static, I feel that sticking to just one career prospect could hinder rather than aid the development of my career.

The unfortunate reality is that even those who have been able to stick with their original plan and attain the job of their dreams can’t afford to get too comfortable where they are. RIM, manufacturer of BlackBerry, peaked in 2008 with a stock price of $150 and was named the “fastest growing company” by Fortune Magazine in 2009. I would imagine anyone within RIM felt more than comfortable in their positions. This year, the company underwent the painful process of laying off 5000 employees. Since joining RIM in September, I have personally witnessed a job cut within my own department, and it took us all by surprise. The experience reminded me of the importance of keeping my options open, and confirmed my belief that obtaining work experience in a variety of fields could pay off in the future.

Health care is a tumultuous field as it is often prone to government cutbacks. I realize this, but continue to hold onto the hope of establishing a career in the industry. However, if along the way other opportunities spark my curiosity, I will not hesitate to sidestep from my original plan. After all, “the plan” is arbitrary, and thankfully Planning 10 didn’t make us write it down in stone.

Malinda Pathacharige is pursuing a BA in Health Sciences, and is gearing towards a career in public health or health administration. She's also a former Career Peer Educator and Ambassador at Student Central. If there is one thing that she's learned from her experiences, it is that thigns rarely go according to plan and you simply need to seize any opportunity that comes your way.

Posted on January 25, 2013