Hasini Basnayake

Photo by Chris Yee

When I started my journey as an international student in Environmental Science, I didn’t have a clear idea of where this degree could take me, as I am sure is the same with many freshmen. In addition to active engagement in volunteer opportunities and student clubs on campus, enrolling in co-op was one of the best decisions I made during my undergraduate career. Co-op helped me understand and explore several career paths that my Environmental Science degree can take me.

Communications – Faculty of Environment (FENV)

My first co-op position was as a Strategic Communications Associate at the Dean’s Office at SFU Faculty of Environment. I know what you’re thinking: “But it’s not related to your major!”. Since I was the first-ever Environment student in this position, I went in with the same doubt. However, it turned out to be an invaluable start to exploring my prospective career paths.

I made use of the graphic design skills I acquired from high school to design banners, advertisements, and handouts for departmental programs using design software such as InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator and Premiere Pro. I also managed the faculty website using Adobe Experience Manager and social media accounts such as Twitter and Facebook using Hootsuite. I was given the opportunity to take part in various recruitment events on and off campus where I built professional relationships with Environment faculty, staff, and students. Since I was working at my faculty, I had the flexibility to integrate my interests as an Environment student into my work. I designed an interactive recycling game to be used at the annual Science Rendezvous hosted on campus for secondary students.

This seemingly “irrelevant” co-op experience really helped me step out of my comfort zone, build my professional network and gain important transfer skills. With updated skills and valuable experience on my resume, I was determined to look for a position that fell directly in line with my coursework for my next co-op term. That is when I landed a 11-month co-op as the GIS Coordinator at Aquaculture Management Division, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

GIS – Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)

Moving into this position was a large leap in my undergraduate career. Although I was an international student competing against local applicants, I landed the position despite the odds. I grew a lot as a person and professionally during my time at DFO, however, it wasn’t without its share of challenges!

My role as the GIS Coordinator involved analyzing and processing aquaculture farm location data to produce federally distributed maps of marine finfish, shellfish and freshwater aquaculture facilities in British Columbia using ESRI ArcGIS. I also hosted a series of presentations on data visualization, management, and sharing capabilities of Federal Geospatial Platform (FGP) to employees including the Regional Director of Aquaculture Management. I produced location maps and top-view/side-view diagrams for the Pacific Region Aquaculture Application Guidebooks found on the DFO website.

Challenges and Rewards

The biggest challenge for me at DFO was that I was the only GIS person in my subdivision, which meant I couldn’t seek GIS help from my supervisor if I ran into a problem. Although this seemed overwhelming at first, I learned to make use of other resources available. For example, I went by and introduced myself to GIS experts in other divisions, and eventually built connections with the GIS network at DFO. I participated in weekly GIS meetings to know more about the projects they work on, and they were more than happy to give me pointers when I reached out for help.

Understanding the government operations such as learning the acronyms, understanding how the system works, and getting used to the office culture took me a couple of weeks. However, when I look back now, I find my co-op experience quite rewarding. I walked in with limited GIS knowledge, no connections, and no clear idea of what I might want to do in my future career. I walked out with polished GIS skills, having built connections with professionals in positions I would want to work in the future, and a clear idea of what I want to achieve in my final year to meet my future career goals.

Advice for New/Prospective Environmental Science Students

  1. Step out of your comfort zone
    I see a lot of students in a rush to finish university in four years and end up graduating with no work experience whatsoever. There is nothing wrong with that, except you can make a fuller experience of your undergraduate years if you allow yourself to step out of your comfort zone and explore different career path options. I did this by enrolling in four terms of co-op; it allows you to grow personally and professionally while helping you experience a range of career options. It also helps your resume stand out from the rest when you are seeking a job after graduation!
  2. Never hesitate to ask for help
    When you’re a young professional, your co-workers or supervisors are more than willing to point you in the right direction. Asking questions shows them that you are actively engaged with your work and your eagerness to learn and grow. I’ve observed that nothing harmful comes out of asking for help.
  3. Do your research on possible career paths
    A common misconception people have about Environmental Science is that it leads to limited job prospects; I couldn’t disagree more. If you are enrolled in Environmental Science, you are already in a major with numerous in-demand career possibilities. However, it is up to you to enrich your resume with various volunteer, co-op experiences and certifications to make sure you stand out from the rest. A good place to start would be on websites such as to understand your career possibilities. Once you identify an area of interest, select your courses accordingly, and apply for co-ops in related fields to receive first-hand experience.