Lived experience leads to rewarding new career

They say experience makes the best teacher. For Pamela Stronski, living through her own struggles with a debilitating illness has set her on the path to a rewarding new career.

Having left the workforce for a number of years due to disability, Pamela enrolled in SFU’s Rehabilitation and Disability Management Diploma program. Today, she works as a vocational rehabilitation consultant, supporting others returning to work following illness or injury.

“I always wanted to do something to help people,” she explains. Pamela began working with people with disabilities at the early age of 12, when she volunteered at an institution in Winnipeg. She later trained in nursing before moving on to managing group homes, working in employment counselling and job development, and eventually as a case manager for the Alberta Workers Compensation Board.

But after she’d moved her family to B.C., Pamela found herself struggling with painful symptoms that would later be diagnosed as lupus. Around the same time, her daughter also became seriously ill, requiring heart surgery and extended hospitalization. 

“It was all too much for me,” Pamela recalls. “So, I left the work scene for a while and did my own thing. I taught music lessons and just did what I could to maintain my household.”

Years passed before her children were grown and healthy, and she could begin to think about returning to work.

“But now I was on the other side of the coin,” says Pamela. “Now I was the client, the person who’s been away from work. How do I get back in? When I found the SFU program, it was my ‘aha’ moment.”

As the Rehabilitation and Disability Management program fills quickly each term, Pamela ended up joining a wait list. Finally, she received an email telling her a spot had opened for her.

“Honestly, I was nervous,” she admits. “I wondered, should I do this? Can I go to school in my late forties? I just took the leap, and I’m so glad I did. It was exciting to be in that learning environment, and it just sparked my brain again. I loved every minute of it.”

Having been away from school for many years, Pamela found the program to be a revelation. “I didn’t feel like I was in a classroom with a teacher,” she says. “I felt like I was in a room full of networking individuals, which was a much more effective teaching style.

“I’m still connected to a lot of the instructors and definitely connected to all my classmates. That was really important to me, because when you’ve been away from the workforce for so long, you don’t have those networks anymore.”

After earning her diploma, Pamela landed a position as a vocational rehabilitation consultant managing B.C. cases for an Ontario firm. She’s now also working towards earning her CVRP (Certified Vocational Rehabilitation Professional) designation.

In addition to applying what she learned in the SFU program to her new role, Pamela draws extensively from her lived experience to help her clients.

“I’m thankful for what I’ve gone through because I’ve worn their shoes and I understand,” she says. “I know the effect that not working can have on a person because I’ve experienced it. Work life is so important for a person’s self-esteem and mental health.

“I’m excited to dive into helping these people who are struggling, to find ways to keep them attached to their work. This is exactly where I’m meant to be.”

By Kim Mah