At age 40, Geoff Gillard made the decision to return to the world of academia to pursue a degree in Communication at SFU. The Communication Co-op program laid the foundation for Geoff’s current career in Vancouver’s non-profit environment sector.

By Kassandra Mihalay

You came to SFU as a mature student, how do you think your past educational experiences added to your experience as a new Communication undergraduate? What was your SFU experience like as a mature student? 

In the three years before I enrolled at SFU I was a part time student at a local college where I took one or two courses per semester. I got into the creative writing program and took every course that they offered in that department so I was able to develop my skills as a writer, which really helped when I entered SFU. 

I turned 40 during my first semester at SFU and I was around a lot of people who were half my age or less. I sacrificed a lot to become a full time student and put a lot of effort into my courses. It was challenging but as the semesters rolled by my self-confidence grew and I was able to enjoy my courses more once I realized that if I worked hard I would do well.

What did you enjoy most about the Communication program?

What I enjoyed the most was learning skills and methods that I knew I would be able to use to help start a new career. It was a whole new way of looking at how things work in our society and that was definitely something I’d come to university to figure out. I appreciated learning about and reading the work of people who had made a positive difference. I should also say that I was really inspired by Martin Laba and the courses he taught. They definitely pointed me to where I am today.

You participated in the Co-op program, how did your experience as a Co-op student help you after graduating from the program?

I did and eight month co-op term with the communications division of Environment Canada. That job led directly into a writing and media monitoring contract with Environment Canada when the co-op wrapped up and I resumed my studies. The next summer they hired me back as a term employee and after I graduated I became a freelance writer. Environment Canada was my best client. Doing that work gave me a portfolio that led to full time positions and gave me good references to call upon. The co-op gave me my start distilling scientific research into lay language for the media, learning about media relations and also how to work in an office.

In your opinion how do you think the communication industry has changed in the past ten years? 

The biggest change in communications has been the growth of the internet and social media as well as a greater reliance on email. Businesses, government and organizations are able interact with their customers, supporters and citizens online. In the not-for-profit organization I work at, Living Oceans Society, we have two distinct groups of supporters: the ones we send e-newsletters to and our Facebook/Twitter/YouTube followers. I spend about one hour every day on our various social media channels either keeping track of what others are doing or hunting for good content to post or tweet about. We do far fewer print publications and we’ve really scaled back the subscription list of our print newsletter. In the course of my day I speak to fewer people by phone. Most contact is done by email. There is also less travel. Web conferencing is more popular nowadays because you can share videos and documents online and have face-to-face communication. It cuts down on expenses and the carbon footprint and frees up time from sitting around in airports.

What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to a Communication undergraduate looking to find their place in the professional world? 

Find ways to gain experience. Finding work often comes down to who you know even more than what you know, so make connections and network. Be kind and patient with yourself and others. If you’re doing a co-op be prepared to leap on any opportunity that presents itself and do everything with a smile on your face. Volunteering can lead to jobs and gets you out in the community. It’s always more comforting to hire a person you’re familiar with than someone you only know from an interview. Plus, volunteering will give you a chance to make a good impression on people that you can ask to serve as references.

You are a Communications Manager at Living Oceans Society. Can you tell us a little about the company, and what you do there?

Living Oceans Society is a not-for-profit environmental organization that’s been advocating for healthy oceans and healthy communities in Canada since we formed in 1998. Our campaigns are aimed at keeping the coast free of oil tankers, getting salmon farms to switch from open net-pens to closed containment, establishing marine protected areas that are similar to parks in the ocean, and promoting sustainable fishing practices and sustainable seafood.

I work with the campaigners to develop and deliver strategic communications plans that move us toward our goals. That involves media relations and working with our partners in the environmental movement and government. I write and edit the content for our web sites, newsletters, annual reports, direct mail letters and brochures. I build web sites or work with web designers to put sites together. I also do graphic design for web and print, video editing and manage our social media presence.

What do you love most about your area of work? 

I really love that I have an opportunity to make a positive difference. I work with amazing, intelligent, dedicated people who share the same values that I have. Most days I can walk out of the office at the end of the day with my head held high.