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Vimbikayi Rachel Chimuka
CO-OP Q&A WITH RACHEL
What inspired you to join the co-op program?
I only found out about the Co-op Program when I was in my second year, and when I found out I said to myself “Why didn’t I know about this before? I want to join!” I realized this was a good starting point to get some awesome work experience. Also, it would be a great pathway to graduating with a full-time job offer.
Those were my very first reasons, but apart from that I’m an Environmental Science major who doesn’t like mud, bugs and dirt - not the ordinary Environmental Science student. Don’t get me wrong - I am passionate about the environment, but I would prefer working indoors unlike most of my peers. I was quickly starting to feel unsure about the program I had chosen because I was so different from the other students, so I joined the Co-op program to explore more options.
Lastly, I needed to take a break from school, and wanted to get into a different environment.
Are you still an environmental science major?
Yes, I am, and that’s because of the experience I had in Co-op. My experience showed me that I enjoy community outreach, project management and leading teams, and I could always pair all of that up with what I learn in my classes. I am happy that now I know where I fit in, and where I can give the most of myself.
Where did you work?
I worked in the Student Recruitment and Transition Department of Student Services at SFU, as the Peer Coordinator for the International Peer Leader program.
What was your role (what type of work did you do)? What were some of your responsibilities?
The International Peer Leader Program supports the recruitment of prospective students, and the transition of current and incoming new international students. The International Peer Leaders (IPLs) are students who share their experiences and help refer students to the appropriate SFU resources and services they need.
My role as the Peer Coordinator was to oversee the International Peer Leader Program. I performed administrative duties to keep the program running, and hired, trained and supervised the IPLs. Additionally, I organized and coordinated events, and ensured the program was within the allocated budget.
How did the skills/knowledge developed in the classroom apply to your job?
Actually, my case is quite different because my Co-op position was not related to my major. My role was mainly focused on HR and Communications. I did, however, transfer skills learnt in my Environmental Science courses to my position. I made use of my writing skills (learnt from writing field reports in classes) when writing data analysis and end of year reports for the program. I also transferred my time management skills acquired from juggling four courses, two jobs and volunteering.
What did you learn?
Many new skills! Part of my work was Human Resources (HR) as mentioned before, so I got the opportunity to post opportunities, screen resumes and cover letters, and interview students for the International Peer Leader position. I’ve always been the one on the other end - applying for jobs - and through this opportunity, I learnt a lot about what employers generally look for.
Secondly, I had the opportunity to supervise other students. This was the biggest lesson for me. Honestly, there is so much more to supervisor positions than having everything on the job description. I learnt that it’s about character, knowing your leadership style, and looking out for the success of the team as a whole. I learned from the mistakes I made, and my experienced supervisors at every opportunity I got.
Apart from these hard skills, I learned a lot about myself. I learned that I love helping people. Also, I absolutely love sharing my own experiences, and helping other students avoid the mistakes I have made in the past.
How was your transition to the workplace?
The transition was quite difficult for me, I must say. Firstly, I expected a training manual for EVERY aspect of my job. I assumed everything would be easy and laid out for me, but I did not get that. I had to work hard to figure out some things myself, and learn new skills that I would need. This was excellent because it improved my problem-solving skills and critical thinking skills, and taught me not to assume anything, but always ask in order to be better prepared.
Also, I struggled with balancing work and building relationships. I think this a common issue for most Co-op students. The expectation is to focus on working and doing your job well. However, if one works all the time and doesn’t speak to those around them, it is possible to finish the work term without having met anyone at all. I found it difficult to create this balance in the beginning of my work term. It was only in my second semester when I found the balance. That’s one piece of advice I would give: Try to balance working hard and building relationships in the workplace.
Can you share a challenge you faced in your Co-op and how you overcame it?
My biggest challenge was in giving constructive feedback to my team. I already knew this would be challenging because of my character, so the first thing I did was to make this one of my co-op learning objectives. Generally, if someone does something I don’t like, I’m very patient with them. I give them many chances to realize it for themselves, and apologize. However, I have found that this approach does not work in the workplace – especially in the supervisor role.
During my second Co-op term, I had a situation with one of my subordinates where I needed to give constructive feedback regarding expectations in the role. I did not say anything the first few times, but I realized I needed to change my approach, so I spoke to my supervisors, took all the advice they gave me and set up a meeting with the person. The first thing I did in the feedback meeting was to ask how their experience was in the program, in order to give them the chance to bring up the reason why we were meeting. We then came up with solutions for the issues together, and documented them on email. The feedback meeting went a lot better than I thought thanks to my supervisors and the preparation I put in.
What was your most memorable Co-op experience?
Creating and completing the International Peer Leader Training Course on Canvas – no doubt about that! It is the most memorable experience because I remember looking at the project in Fall 2016 and saying to myself, “This is a really big project. Can I do it and finish it?” Also, I did not undergo any training for creating courses on Canvas, so I wasn’t very confident about the project. However, with time and encouragement from my supervisors, I began to enjoy it. I particularly enjoyed putting the course content together, designing the modules, and creating the assignments and discussion topics. It took a whole semester to put it together, but it was worth it. It was so exciting to finally click that “Publish” button and see all the modules turn green – ready to be read! This experience has also shown me that I enjoy developing online training material.
What advice do you have for future Co-op students?
The biggest piece of advice I have is: Take ownership of your role! I worked as if no one was going to review my work and help fix my mistakes. I would recommend taking this approach because now my supervisors and I have an elevated level of trust, and they know that they can always expect a high standard of work from me.
Secondly, do not settle for mediocrity – always strive for more. My goal was to complete the tasks I had, and do more. This is how I proposed creative ideas and improved other aspects of the program, leaving my mark on the program.
My last piece of advice is: Believe in yourself, and always bring a touch of who you are to your role! I am passionate about growth and personal development, and brought that focus into the International Peer Leader program. Every semester, I asked for my team’s goals and made a conscious effort to help them achieve them by delegating tasks accordingly. I am happy to say that I have seen most of the team achieve their goals, and it has been the most fulfilling experience!