Christy Niven and Daniel Poulin can finish each other’s sentences.
After 3 years of working together at the University of Guelph (UofG), Christy as the Manager, Employment Services & Systems, Experiential Learning Hub, and Daniel, as an Experiential Learning Specialist, Experiential Learning Hub, share an indelible impact on student career readiness deployment and graduate livelihood. Their recent work includes spearheading a partnership with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) that uses Orbis’s Outcome solution to capture off-campus summer work experiences at RBC on a UofG student’s official Professional and Career Development Record (PCDR). We caught up with Christy and Daniel and unpacked how their unique career journeys brought them to UofG and are contributing to their efforts to support student and graduate potential fulfillment.
Q: Tell us about your career. Where did you begin and how did you get where you are now?
C: My career began in post-secondary education at another institution, as a member of the frontline team supporting co-op. It was not the best fit for me at the time, and I’m not lost on the irony that I’m now the Manager of a similar frontline team at UofG. But there’s been quite a journey between those two positions.
I made an internal move to alumni relations, which had a large impact on my career. Starting as an administrative worker, I quickly contributed my skillset to make many efficiency upgrades in technology, accounting, and event coordination (even coding a website, which I’d never done before). In a short amount of time, I was promoted to the coordinator level and then completed a secondment as an alumni officer and mentored the student alumni group. This role solidified my love of event management and the importance of collaboration.
After some barriers, I left the institution for a non-profit organization, where I was able to build their alumni program from the ground up. I built a website and online community, created chapter groups, and managed the coordination of a major competition event that was attended by hundreds of students, parents, and staff. It was a perfect blend of technology and relationship building/collaboration!
After the non-profit lost the funding for my position, a former colleague advised me of a “systems” position at the University of Guelph. Although I questioned my qualifications to do the job, when I unpacked the competencies and reflected on the projects I had led, I could easily link the skillset that I could offer. I’ve been at the University of Guelph for a little over 10 years, progressing from a coordinator level to a manager. So, how did I get where I am now? Through a path that had some steep hills and sharp curves, and sometimes dead ends, but at the end of the path was the most fulfilling position of my career.
D: I had always been good at math and science but didn’t feel particularly drawn to one discipline, so when I started university I thought environmental would be a good middle ground. After about a year-and-a-half I realized it wasn’t the right fit for me and decided to take a semester to explore a few electives while working. It was at the beginning of my third year when I dropped all my courses and switched to a major in drama after working for a summer at the art camp I attended as a teen. It was a scary decision because I had never been a strong reader or writer and I knew those were a big part of the program. In the end, I figured that if I was going to spend the time and money on a degree, it should at least be in something I enjoyed.
After getting involved in producing a couple of theatre shows and managing the finances for our art student union, I recognized an interest and aptitude for business. After taking a year off to work and volunteer, I completed a post-graduate certificate in arts and administration and ended up working part-time for the place I did my final internship, Guelph Dance, for five years. At the same time, I landed my first non-student role at the U of G as the part-time OUTline Coordinator in the (then) Student Life and Counselling Services department.
From there I moved between different volunteer and peer support coordination positions until I was seconded to the institutional experiential learning project in 2018, and have been there ever since. It’s interesting reflecting on how despite my path being far from straightforward, there seems to be a thread of learning from doing throughout. I try to share my conviction that you can learn from any experience as much as I can whenever I work with students, colleagues, and partners.
Q: Your recent work to leverage Outcome to recognize off-campus RBC student summer work experiences on UofG students’ official PCDR is the first of its kind in Canada. Why did you instigate this idea?
C: Elaine Fenner and I had a conversation with Brien Convery (RBC), a strong supporter of WIL experiences, in Fall 2019. As he was describing RBC’s Backpack program, which provides students the opportunity to identify competencies, give feedback on their experience, and self-assess at the end of their summer position, we realized that students hired at RBC had the same 600-hour experience, regardless of whether they were a co-op student or not. At UofG, we had already recognized the need to formally capture a student’s off-campus work experience and was also developing our Professional & Career Development Record at the same time, so everything just fell into place.
As we continued discussions, we realized how much RBC does to engage their students to make a meaningful impact on their business processes, and so RBC Café powered by Ten Thousand Coffees and the RBC Innovation Challenge were easy additions to our recognition plans.
Today’s post-secondary students and graduates face historically unique hurdles and opportunities in the (eventual) wake of this global pandemic. What advice do you have for students looking to navigate their career paths now?
D: There are three messages try to instill in the students I connect with: (1) believe that you have value to bring to a job, (2) use the resources available to you, and (3) don’t give up.
I often encounter students underselling what they have to offer to a potential employer. They skip over experiences they don’t see as relevant or they undervalue the experience they have. Despite being in a “selfie” generation, I feel people have a hard time talking about themselves and an even harder time making connections between their knowledge, skills, and abilities to a future job. I think the first step to getting through this is truly believing you have something valuable you can offer to an employer. This is where reflection can play a huge role in helping us to understand the strengths we bring to our work and is foundational to being able to explain to employers how we have the skills to do the job they are recruiting for.
This is all easier said than done, which is why it’s important to use any resources available to you. There are lots of free resources and templates available online, and post-secondary students often have access to career advising services through their institutions, sometimes even after becoming alum. Using these resources can sometimes be the difference between getting an interview or not, so anything you can use to get an edge helps.
And finally, don’t give up. The job search process can be long and can feel discouraging at times. The best thing to do is keep looking to refine your resume and try again.
Q: Who or what inspires you and how do you stay motivated in the face of our current environment?
C: I’m always a Mom first – so I have to say I’m inspired by my boys. They have had to adapt to terms we would never have imagined – stay-at-home orders, mask requirements, isolated from family and friends, and dealing with heavy topics at such a young age. They recently turned 13 during isolation. No birthday party, no big celebrations, and yet they weren’t disappointed, they knew it’s what we needed to do to be safe. “There will be more birthdays to celebrate, Mom.” Not only am I inspired by them, but I’m also so proud of them.
D: I have been most inspired by the people around me – my friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues. I have seen so much adaptability, compassion, and courage come out of such a difficult time. It has warmed my heart.
Christy’s Favourite Quote: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso
Daniel’s Favourite Quote: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
Q: What role do you see technology playing in the future of student career readiness? How can technology better adapt to meet students with what they need for success?
C: I’ve been obsessed with technology since I completed a robotics research assignment in Grade 10. It’s been a big part of my career in every role. Particularly now, technology is evolving at a high pace. At a recent Microsoft Ignite conference, the CEO stated that they were experiencing a YEAR of innovation every MONTH. The pandemic had a huge part in that, but it’s staggering to think of the enormity of that amount of change happening over a short amount of time.
In terms of career readiness, we’ve been hearing from hiring managers that while a resume is still a foundational document in hiring processes, a competency profile is being preferred by some to assess a student’s suitability for a position. This is where technology will continue to evolve as institutions complement their career education programming with technical tools that empower students to reflect, assess, and articulate their competency development. The hype around blockchain is still building, and I’m interested in reviewing use cases tied to career readiness and competency sharing in the near future.
D: I think the relationship technology plays in our personal and work lives (if you can even separate those anymore) will continue to deepen and intertwine. In that way, students must acquire the technical literacy skills they need to be able to adapt to new systems of communication and ways of working. I think technology should continue to focus on refining user experience and integration so that these technologies can truly start to feel like a seamless and intuitive part of our lives.
Q: Every career path has hurdles but some stand-out more than others. What standout career hurdles have you overcome and what advice do you have for those who confront the same challenges?
C: I’ve experienced two career-defining hurdles in my career. The first was being rejected for a promotion on the sole basis of not having a degree. The contributions I had made to this organization and the role to which I was applying were recognized by senior leaders and through national awards we received. But although I had achieved success in the role, without a degree I was not going to be promoted. I had a choice – do I go continue in a “safe” role or do I leave and showcase my skills to another organization? I took a huge risk, chose the latter, and never looked back.
The second hurdle occurred during a recession when the non-profit organization I worked for lost the funding for my position. At the same time, I was assessing my career as a new mom and realized that the job I had so much passion for was not going to be something I could maintain with young children. I had to change my career focus, and when I looked at my skill set, technology was always an interest in terms of improving efficiencies, so I made another risky decision and accepted a program coordination/systems management role.
My advice in both these situations is to believe in yourself and what you have to offer. Be open to trying new things that you think you can’t do, because in the end, with the proper work ethic, training, and research, you can do anything. The only thing you can’t do are the things that you don’t try. I’ve taken so many learning opportunities with me through my career that I still fall back on today.
D: For me, it was being interested in (almost) everything. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, and to best honest, I still don’t. I originally saw this as a problem because everyone else around me felt so sure and focused on what they wanted to be and where they wanted to go. I sorted of felt like an unfocused mess for my early education and career years. However, I have now seen this has been a huge benefit. Although I may not be an “expert” in one subject, my broad interests have meant that I can appreciate a range of perspectives. This has positioned me well as a facilitator and connector which is something I do a lot in my current role and love.
I would say to anyone reading this that there is a place for you and your skills. Even if it doesn’t seem clear now, or even if your path looks different than those around you, there is work out there that needs you and the value that you can bring. Sometimes it’s just about finding it.
Q: This pandemic has elevated collaboration and innovation, across leadership at all levels, in support of student career readiness and upward economic mobility. How important is collaboration and are partnerships in accomplishing your goals?
D: Collaboration has been and continues to be the cornerstone of everything we are doing in the EL Hub. We have a strong belief that diversity of experience, perspective, and ideas is vital to developing accessible, inclusive, and equitable programs and services. While it can slow things down sometimes, we feel that taking the time to listen to the needs of our stakeholders is a critical part of the process. I think this philosophy is what has led to some amazing new partnerships and programs this year that we are excited to see continue in the future.
Q: What are you most proud of?
C: Ditto what Daniel said! Literally, I was typing the same thing. It shows how invested we are in the work that we are doing and the impact it will have for many years to come.
D: I am most proud of the connections we have helped facilitate and the real impact that our work is having on students, the university, and our community/employer partners. We have been fortunate to hear from both students and partners that their experiences have helped shape their work and their directions moving forward. Knowing that the work we have done had such a direct impact is really what it is all about for me.
Q: Orbis has been fortunate to work with UofG through your team for some time. How would you describe working with our team?
C: I feel fortunate to work with Orbis as well. Over the past ten years, we’ve completed a lot of innovative work together – Co-op Rank & Offer, Work Performance Evaluations, and the Flexible Internship Module to name a few. Since we began our implementation of the EL modules 3.5 years ago, Orbis has supported us throughout the process. Their knowledge of not just what’s happening institutionally, but also nationally and internationally, gave us the ability to make informed decisions on how best to proceed with tracking the experiential learning opportunities that were already taking place and gave us examples of where it could go in the future.
I am appreciative of the work Orbis completed on our most recent innovative project – the RBC off-campus work experience recognition on our Professional & Career Development Record. It was not in Orbis’ plan to provide a solution at the time we were having our discussions with RBC, but they saw the value and impact that this project would have for students and joined the discussions enthusiastically. We now have a solution that we will be able to leverage for other eligible off-campus opportunities.
I look forward to many more years of innovative partnerships with Orbis!