April 30, 2015
SO… WHAT NOW?
Well, here we are. The end of April. The end of my second work term. The end of an era.
The work term report has been submitted; the projects are being wrapped up; the inevitable “Goodbye, Alicia!” team lunch has been booked. As of Friday, May 1, I will no longer be a Communications Assistant at the Department of Justice. In fact, I’ll no longer be a public servant (albeit a temporary one) at all; unlike last semester, there’s no shiny new contract waiting for me at the beginning of the next term. After a year of thirty-seven-point-five hours per week of gainful employment, I’m going back to being a regular old student. It’s like a reverse metamorphosis.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited to go back. I went through the course calendar in early February to pick out all my summer courses and organize my timetable (and a week after registering, of course, I changed my mind and revamped the whole thing). Mildly embarrassing but true: picking courses gives me the same feeling as running downstairs on Christmas morning to see a pile of presents under the tree. The excitement of reading an intriguing course description, recognizing a favourite professor, and discovering that by some miracle the course I want fits perfectly in my schedule is like tearing off the wrapping paper and throwing open the big, mysterious cardboard box inside. Studies in Diaspora Literature? For me? You shouldn’t have!
At the same time, the end of my time at Justice feels oddly anti-climactic. I probably said this about my last work term too, didn’t I? You know, I’ve been staring at this sentence for about thirty seconds, trying to decide whether or not it’s worth the effort to check my last blog post from December to see if I used the same wording. Let’s call it a parallel and ignore my innate laziness.
It’s true, though. Even more so than last semester. When I finished up my term at Aboriginal Affairs, I was scrambling to get a major project completed (or mostly completed, with strict instructions for the next student on steps for continuation). But my work at Justice has stemmed more regular duties and less from projects, so while most of my friends are frantically studying and powering through exams, I’m just sort of… leaving. I’ll be spending my last week of work preparing content for the Infoscreens and putting together a newsletter, only to leave before either is published. I’ve even written several articles that aren’t scheduled for publication for mid-May or even mid-June; they’ll be reviewed and edited and approved by other people, and I’ll never end up seeing the final draft. It’s weird to think my name will be popping up in our newsletter long after I’m gone.
(I’ve just had an idea for a modern-day ghost story: who is this mysterious co-op student who keeps publishing articles from beyond the end of her contract? Spooky…)
But my final two weeks have prompted a realization: I like my job. I know, I know. You’re thinking well, Alicia, clearly you don’t like it THAT much, if it took you four months to clue in. Here’s the thing, though. I grew up being told, through school and books and movies and TV, that I should follow my dreams! Pursue my passions! Find my calling! Which is wonderful, and encouraging, and also not always right for everyone.
I mean, to an extent, that’s exactly what I’ve done. I picked English because I loved reading and writing and thinking and I wanted to learn more about all of those things. I get excited about picking courses, about going back to school, because I love what I get to do in my classes and I love my degree. But even this wasn’t necessarily the “right” path for me. When I applied to universities in grade 12, I thought about going into physics. Or math. Or music. Or sociology. If you go back just a few years further to grade 10, I was dead set on being an archaeologist. And if you go way, way back to kindergarten, I wanted to be a ballerina (I never took ballet lessons, so I don’t know where this aspiration came from. I think I just wanted an excuse to wear a tutu professionally). Am I happy I chose English? Yes. Very much so. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have been happy somewhere else. Academic monogamy is not a trait I happen to possess.
My attitude towards work is, I’ve discovered, pretty similar. Way back in September, when I started my first co-op placement and wrote my first blog post, I said that I ended up in the co-op program at Carleton largely by chance, that the point for me was not to get ahead in some pre-chosen career path but to venture into the unknown and discover what was out there. I think part of me was hoping, optimistically, that I would take a placement, work for a few weeks, and just know: this is it! This is the one!
In that sense, I’ve failed. I haven’t found my career soul-mate, and I have a sneaking suspicion I’m not going to anytime soon. And while I’ve always been something of a perfectionist, this is actually kind of failure that I don’t mind, because in the process of failing to find my One True Career Passion, I’ve also discovered two positions that I really, really enjoy
I’ve already talked (well, written) at great length about my time at Aboriginal Affairs, so let me focus on communications at Justice. It’s a position where I was given a huge range of work: over my four months here I’ve written newsletter articles, created communications plans, designed Infoscreen slides, revamped the Infoscreen process, drafted messaging, coordinated the newsletter, liaised with people from all over the Department – I could go on. Some of this was assigned to me outright; much of it trickled down when I expressed an interest or asked for more work. I was switching between projects constantly – my ideal work environment – and almost always busy. I was given a pretty generous amount of responsibility, for a co-op student. I may not have leapt out of bed every morning at 6:00 a.m., but I liked coming into work, I liked my team, I liked being good at my job.
Will I stick with communications? Maybe. I don’t know. I think I’d like it, if I did. I also think I’d be interested in pursuing more policy work, or looking into private-sector work. There are days when I think about continuing on in studying English after I finish my undergrad, days where I think about law school, days when I think about going back and doing that physics degree after all. I’ve still got two more co-op terms to complete before I graduate, and two more years till graduation itself. We’ll see what happens.
So, no, the co-op program hasn’t planned my life for me. That’s a little much to ask of any program, I think. What it has done, though, is provide me with an opportunity to develop workplace skills and, equally important, workplace interests. Whatever I choose to do next, I’ll be going into it with months of valuable experience and a better understanding of my own abilities and interests – and a better understanding of, well, myself. I’ll be going into it feeling prepared. And frankly, I don’t think there’s much more I could ask for.
March 31, 2015
NEWSLETTER EDITING: THE ART OF LAST-MINUTE INNOVATIONS
Big news, everyone.
As of last Friday, I am (semi-officially) the lead editor of our internal newsletter.
I know. Please hold your applause.
The position, I should add, is temporary. While the real lead editor is away on vacation, I get to take on her newsletter-related duties. For the next four weeks, I’m essentially running the newsletter mailbox on my own, which means dealing with submissions and putting them all into the newsletter; making sure we’ve got all the right pieces for each issue, and that everything gets translated and approved on time; putting it all together and editing everything; and just generally ensuring that everything is present, polished, and ready for distribution at a reasonable time each Monday.
Part of me – the narcissistic, wildly imaginative part of me, and also the part that seems to secretly covet power – pictures myself like Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. The more realistic part of me can’t help thinking of Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope circa season one, where her over-the-top enthusiasm for her small-time sub-committee serves as the season’s running punchline.
Really, though, there are far worse figures to model myself after than Leslie. Her transformation is truly inspiring: from an enthusiastic yet bungling start in season one, she quickly slides into her rightful place as the powerhouse of the Pawnee Parks Department. And yes, I may be getting ahead of myself again, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with aspiring to her degree of efficiency, organization, and dedication. Well – the first two, anyway. As much as I do enjoy my position at Justice, when it comes to dedication I am just not on Leslie’s level.
The point being – aside from illustrating how much TV I watched this weekend – for a while, I’m taking on a little more responsibility than I’m used to having. It’s exciting, and it’s a nice vote of confidence, but also more than a little nerve-wracking.
My actual duties haven’t changed all that much; I’ve already been helping out with the newsletter for several weeks now. I know all the steps. I know how everything (well, most of it) works. I know to see who needs to see what by when.
What I’m less used to is dealing with the problems, because inevitably, every week there are problems.
Let’s take this week, for example. My first time handling the newsletter more-or-less solo.
We run a feature called “Our People” every week, in which an employee fills out a short profile of him or herself and submits it with a picture, thereby “introducing” themselves to the rest of the Department. We’ve had all sorts of people – lawyers, paralegals, librarians, policy people, travel advisors, the Chief Audit Executive, our Deputy Minister’s Chief of Staff. Even me, one week where we were tight on time and needed a profile ready fast. It’s usually interesting and almost always entertaining, which is why it’s our most popular and most-read section of the newsletter on a regular basis.
But, after a year or so of running this feature every week, we’re starting to run out of candidates. Everyone loves to read it, but no one wants to do it. Almost every issue we find ourselves in a mad scramble to find someone, anyone to fill out a profile.
This week, though we were set. We had our profile translated and coded and everything; all we needed was a picture.
And then, at the last minute, our candidate backed out.
Normally, my only responsibility would be to let the lead editor know what had happened, and then leave her to deal with it. This is my strategy for most newsletter problems that arise, actually. I have always a firmly assistance-based role in newsletter assembly duties (my position title is, after all, Communications Assistant). I’m happy to help if asked, but I’m equally happy to bow down to the lead editor’s superior problem-solving experience and just try to keep out of her way. But this time I got to spend a significant chunk of my day frantically emailing anyone I could think of to see if I could coerce them into doing a last-minute profile, in between frequent breaks to run over to the newsletter supervisor’s desk to ask for help.
Eventually we decided to just drop the profile for this week, and maybe consider starting to run it every other week instead. No big deal.
Of course, about three minutes after we’ve made this decision, an email pops up in the shared newsletter mailbox. It’s from someone out in the Atlantic region, writing in to let us know – I am not exaggerating in the slightest – that she really loved the “Our People” feature and thought the whole concept was a wonderful idea – keep up the great work, team!
Still, it was still nice to hear; but I did feel a creeping sense of guilt as I wrote back to thank her (and, for good measure, tacked on an invitation for her to fill out her own profile as well. Resourcefulness at its finest, and probably its most desperate.)
I am pleased to report that at the very last minute, and somewhat unexpectedly, we ended up with a submission in our shared mailbox from someone I’d invited to complete a profile several weeks earlier, after he’d done a quick interview with me for a different newsletter article. It worked out, in the end. There was a lot of hasty emailing and a translation job that got pushed through at the last minute, but the issue came together, basically.
Because it wasn’t just the “Our People” feature that was the problem this week. This issue was a mess of late submissions, of articles pulled out and put back in and shifted around. Periodically I felt like I should go personally apologize to the guy who was doing all of our coding for making his job so brutal right at the end of the week. But as of Friday evening, when I left for the weekend, it was in reasonable shape: most of it was coded, most of it was finalized, and all we were waiting on was one translation.
The sense of accomplishment was indescribable. I’ve always (well, mostly) been the sort of person who likes to get her work done ahead of time, but I have to admit that there is something incredibly satisfying about watching a project miraculously come together at the last minute.
Anyway, that’s one problem down. I’ve already started putting together the next week’s issue, and in doing so I’ve come across the next crisis: we’re missing a feature. I keep opening our planning calendar and staring at it, hoping someone will have added some interesting, lengthy story (photos included) that they’ve been polishing in secret, but no. Not so far. I suspect the memory of that blank planning calendar will crop up in my nightmares, even months after I’ve finished this position.
But that’s a problem for next week.
March 3, 2015
REAL FAKE JOURNALISM
“It’s too bad the journalism program doesn’t offer co-op,” my supervisor once said to me when I was helping out with the hiring process for the summer. “I’d love to get a journalism student. They’d be perfect.”
At the time, this mildly offended my competitive nature. Maybe a journalism major would have perfect, but an English major was equally perfect. I could write, and plan, and communicate. My academic background had left me pretty prepared for this job – no less prepared than any journalism student, surely.
(If you’re detecting a hint of an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better rivalry, it’s because two of my roommates are journalism majors. I have to live with this every day.)
But once I’d had time to get over myself, I had to admit that maybe my supervisor had a point. Based on my two months of experience, communications does tend towards the journalistic. Writing an article for the newsletter, for instance, is essentially…well, writing an article. It has to be short, concise, clear, and written in plain language, most of which were challenges for me after two years of academic essays and reports, and another four months of government policy work at Aboriginal Affairs. Even in my creative writing, this stuff does not come easily – especially the ‘short’ and ‘concise’ bits. I am the writer whose optimistic flash fiction quickly unravels into a novella (which, of course, then sits uselessly on my computer, partially edited and indefinitely abandoned. But that’s another story.)
I mean, come on. Even my blog posts are long.
But no one has the time to dedicate four hours of their day to casually reading the news; and no one wants to have the time to dedicate four hours of their day to reading an employee newsletter. Information in our newsletter tends to fall into one of two categories: it might be interesting, or it might be important. Very rarely is it both.
Our features typically monopolize the interesting half of our news dichotomy. These are the human-interest pieces, articles that highlight individuals or initiatives or events within the department. A few weeks ago we ran a feature on the emerging trend of conducting court trials electronically (and while this might not appeal to everyone, keep in mind that 50% of our employees are lawyers). Last Monday, one of the features covered the celebrations for the Quebec Regional Office’s 50th anniversary. There’s a little more leeway with this types of articles – plain language is still a must-have, but they can be a few hundred words. Are they interesting? Usually. Do you have to read them to be able to do your job? Probably not.
Corporate news, on the other hand, is often drier. While it’s good to know that 2014 tax slips are now available, or that Microsoft Office will be updated on all Justice computers before the end of March, neither of these are things that most people want to spend time reading about. All they need are the facts: what’s happening, and when, and what do they need to do about it?
In theory this is easy, but it gets more complicated when a) you have to explain why it’s happening, for instance by linking it to a larger departmental initiative, and b) you have to make it sound good. A bulleted list of bare-bones details is not, unfortunately, an acceptable article.
And then consider this: most of the corporate news pieces we get come from subject-matter experts, such as people with extensive IT knowledge. Even if writing is a regular part of their job, they’re usually writing for a specific audience, one where a certain amount of familiarity with the subject can be assumed. Our job is to take their articles, cut out the jargon, and restructure the whole thing into plain language – without, of course, leaving out any of the content. It’s harder than it sounds; definitely harder than writing a plain-language article from scratch.
The part of my job that makes me feel like a real fake journalist (I promise this will make sense in a minute) is when I get to go cover events. I don’t write features often; other team members contribute on behalf of their clients, as do communications employees in our regional offices, and sometimes we include reprints from internal legal newsletters as well.
Occasionally, though, I get my time in the spotlight. Near the end of January, Justice hosted a panel on what the department is doing to combat violence against Aboriginal girls and women in Canada. Panels like these, where employees involved in specific portfolios are invited to discuss their work, are fairly common; it’s a good way to get an idea of what’s going on at Justice outside of your own little bubble.
My supervisor asked my to cover this particular panel, which basically involved taking notes for a short write-up and snapping a few pictures. I borrowed a camera from Creative Services—one of the big ones with the chunky lens—and headed down, early enough to sit through the inevitable onslaught of technical difficulties as the moderator attempted to open the panel to videoconferencing for regional employees.
This was the part that felt like real journalism: I was covering an event! I had a big camera! I was getting quotes! I was going to write an article!
But the event was in the same building as my office, just a few floors down. There was no rush to get the story written or published—in fact, it ran in our newsletter two or three weeks after the event itself—it’s not like our internal newsletter has much in the way of competition. And, as with anything in government, there were many, many levels of approval to run through before the story was published. It was a pretty low-stress project. The worst part was going through the camera and realizing what a horrible photographer I was. Even that, though, could be more or less fixed up with some cropping and brightness adjustments.
See? Real fake journalism. The best of both worlds.
February 10, 2015
COMMUNICATIONS: THE BASICS
When I interviewed with Justice last semester, I was asked to complete a small assignment beforehand so that my now-supervisor could get an idea of my writing level (and, presumably, my ability to follow instructions). From an employer’s perspective, this is a pretty good idea, although this was the first interview in which I’d ever been asked to do anything of the kind.
But it was kind of nice from my perspective as a job candidate, too. For one thing, it gave me a chance to showcase my writing, which I am well aware is one of my strongest skills. Interviews stress me out (I know, I know, interviews stress everyone out); similar to many situations that involve talking to people I don’t know, I get nervous and sometimes say stupid things. So it was comforting to think that, even if my mouth did disconnect from my brain again, at least I had my written assignment to demonstrate that I was reasonably competent.
It also gave me a broad picture of some of the work I would be doing as a student at Justice, so when people (mostly my parents) started asking what the job would involve, I could at least tell them that I would be writing some of the articles for the weekly internal newsletter.
I think my parents said something along the lines of oh, that sounds interesting in response to this. But I could tell what they were thinking—what I was thinking too, to an extent—was, is that all?
I have a deep-seated horror of being bored at work. I would much rather be run off my feet and on the verge of stress-induced tears than face a day—even an hour—with too little to do. I don’t know whether this is a good thing or not; it tends to make me pretty productive, but there have also been times where I’ve taken on more work than I can handle.
Anyway, while the job description seemed interesting and I was eager to try on communications for a few months, I’ll also admit to some trepidation. Speaking as someone with zero prior experience in the field, and basing my preconceptions almost entirely on my pre-interview assignment, I found myself wondering… was communications actually that much work?
Communications, it turns out, is a lot more than just the weekly newsletter.
If you look at most departments’ organizational charts, you usually find communications in a little bubble off to the side of everything else. It’s hard to squeeze us into the convoluted hierarchy and subdivision of the rest of the department; as my supervisor once said, we sort of have our fingers in everything. We’re responsible for writing, coordinating, and distributing the weekly newsletter to employees, typically a mix of human interest articles and corporate news; we create and post slides displaying information about upcoming events or recent initiatives; we work on messages sent out to employees, sometimes drafting them ourselves and other times editing clients’ drafts for tone and clarity; and we help with the placement and design of pages on our intranet. Keep in mind, this is all for corporate and internal communications, and only a summary of work in which I’ve been involved in thus far over my five weeks with the Department.
A typical day for me goes something like this:
- I’ve usually got at least one article for our newsletter on the go; I may still be working on writing the draft, or I may be editing it based on feedback from my supervisor and manager, or I may be editing it based on feedback from the client. Then it will disappear again as I send it off for more approvals.
- Recently I’ve been helping our primary editor coordinate the newsletter as well, so depending what day of the week it is, I may be pulling articles together in a mockup of the upcoming newsletter or editing a preview of the issue online before it goes out for distribution. This also usually involves a fair amount of frantic emailing with the primary editor, the electronic communications team, and people who have promised us articles.
- Clients (that is, other sectors within the department, such as wellness, information or security services) will come to my supervisor with their needs: announcements, initiatives, new programs, or changes in current programs or policies that need to be communicated to Justice employees. If this is a new project, my supervisor or I will create a communications plan, detailing key messages, strategic considerations, and vehicles for communication. If a plan already exists, I may work on some of the products it outlines, such as putting a notice in our newsletter or creating an information screen.
- Three days a week I help out the social media team by taking on a media-monitoring shift. This means that in between working on other projects, I’ll take a few minutes every so often to track any activity on the Department’s social media accounts, mostly Twitter and Facebook. I’ll also scroll through tweets posted by other departments and suggest content for Justice to re-tweet. I’d never used Twitter before starting this position, so this was a bit of a learning experience at first. (I had to look up whether or not to capitalize “tweet” as I wrote this paragraph, by the way. Embarrassing.)
Those are the basics, thought other stuff may pop up as well. It’s a very different environment from policy, both in terms of duties and logistics; while policy projects were often drawn out over a long-term timeline, the majority of the work I do at Justice moves pretty quickly. After all, there’s no use putting out a reminder about a webcast if the reminder goes out a week after the webcast has already happened. Projects get pushed through approvals relatively fast, after which they’re often used immediately.
This isn’t all internal communications is about, though. Last week saw me helping my supervisor out with co-op interviews, just like at AANDC, to hire my replacement for the summer term. I started by looking through applications with my eye out for experience in writing or journalism (or, obviously, communications)—that’s what most of my work here involves. I was looking for someone who could do the work I was doing. Makes sense, right?
But my supervisor had other ideas. “National Public Service Week is coming up in June,” she told me. “That usually takes over the whole branch for a while. Writing skills are important, but what would be really great is someone with experience in event planning, someone who can think fast on their feet. They need to be outgoing, too—we need someone who will be right out there selling tickets, making sure people are having a good time.”
I nodded politely and added event planning to my list of assets as I read through resumes, but internally I was breathing a deep sigh of relief. I love what I’m doing right now, work that is writing-intensive and as independent as you can be when you’re part of a team. I love the people with whom I’m working, too, and the experience of the working at Justice as a whole, but I can’t imagine myself enjoying the experience of National Public Service Week all that much. Looks like I picked the right semester for my work term.
January 23, 2015: HAPPY 2015!
I have to admit, there’s something a little disheartening about starting a new job. Don’t get me wrong, it’s exciting; but for me there’s sometimes a sense of regression, of having to go all the way back to the start. This, after all, is pretty much where I was in September: new department, new position, new work, new team. It’s like being the new kid at school for the second time in less than a year.
Christmas was a much-needed break for me, a chance to head home and see my family and, perhaps most importantly, sleep in for a change. It was also an opportunity for me to switch gears, digging myself out of the housing policy mindset I’d built up over the past four months and gearing up for a change, which I couldn’t help but regard with equal parts trepidation and anticipation. I can be an anxious person – change makes me nervous. Leading up to a big shift in my life, I tend to spontaneously regret every decision I’ve made to get me there: applying for this job was a mistake! Accepting the job was a mistake! The work will be too hard! The work will be boring! The people won’t be friendly! I’ll make so many mistakes!
And so on.
I guess these are common, normal fears when you’re starting something new, especially for someone in a co-op position (young, student, not a lot of experience). Unless you’ve got industrial-strength self-confidence, in which case a) congratulations, and b) I probably kind of hate you. And some of these are very likely to be true, too: you will make mistakes. There is no way around this. Some of your mistakes won’t really matter, and some may still make you cringe when you look back on them ten years from now. The earlier you accept this, the less stressed out you will be. And chances are, some of your work may be too hard, but this isn’t the end of the world. Just ask for help. And some of it may be boring – no job is absolutely edge-of-your-seat thrilling every second of every day.
The other thing is, it gets easier with practice. I was significantly more chill for my first day at the Department of Justice than I was for Aboriginal Affairs last semester. I had a better idea what I was going to be doing, thanks to the three small assignments I’d completed as part of my interview process. I’d met my interviewers in person, rather than over the phone. I had a basic understanding of how government worked. I knew where the building was. I was ready. Pretty much. Sort of.
Fast forward two weeks and here I am (in my office – did I mention I get my own office? I have a whole drawer devoted to storing my shoe collection), more or less settled in with the internal communications team. I’ve already written five or six articles for our internal newsletter, mostly related to security awareness. I’ve done a few communication plans and created a handful of slides for the information screens in our main buildings. I’ve also been trained on the system used to create and upload playlists for the slides, and I’m set up to start doing some social media monitoring soon, too. All that residual new job stress has had a chance to dissipate – so trust me, while it might be inevitable, it’s also not permanent.
I’m not a big believer in the whole “new year, new me!” philosophy. I mean, I kind of like the old me. That being said, I did sit down on New Year’s Eve and take on the infamously daunting prospect of New Year’s Resolutions – forty of them, to be exact. Some of them were predictable – exercise more! Some were fun – re-read Harry Potter, but in French! Some aimed high – finish two major writing projects this year! Some, just to make myself feel better, aimed low – buy a new pen!
(Cards on the table – I still haven’t bought a new pen. I’ve had three weeks to accomplish the easiest goal on my list and I haven’t even contemplated going to Staples).
And of course I’ve organized all my goals into different categories, because it makes me feel almost like my life is organized, too. Writing goals, exercise goals, academic goals, work goals – you get the picture. And after I’d done all of that, I stared at my list and thought: where on earth am I going to find the time to do all of this?
It’s a problem I ran into when I first started working full-time two years ago, for a summer job. I would wake up, go to work, come home, read or watch TV or play the piano, and go to bed. Knowing most people struggle to find a work-life balance doesn’t mean it’s any easier when you have to start doing it yourself, apparently.
While it’s pretty easy to write off a summer job as an interim situation—doing nothing but work all summer is okay, because I’m going back to school in the fall! Then I can have a life again!—it’s a little harder to look at a solid eight-month block and think oh, well. Which means you have to make time for things, and making time for things almost inevitably means cutting out other things. Prioritizing. If I play squash Tuesday evening, then I probably won’t have time to do piano practice when I get home. And so on. For me, that includes scheduling my writing, as well—I try to fit it in whenever I can, but sometimes I’m too tired (that’s what I tell myself, anyway), or sometimes I want to see my friends instead. The only time I can block off regularly, one-hundred-percent distraction free? In the morning, before work. It’s painful, and I regret it so much every time I drag myself out of bed a half-hour earlier than I need to get up, but I guess you have to make sacrifices.
I don’t really have much advice about this; I think I really just wanted to complain. I haven’t found the perfect solution, nor am I likely to anytime soon. Like most of my life, it’s a work in progress.
This was Alicia’s final post from her AANDC position, submitted in December, 2014
GOODBYE TO AANDC
Well, this is it. My term at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is officially… over. I’ve handed off my projects, I’ve submitted my departure forms, I’ve returned my ID badge. I’m done.
As with most big changes in my life, I’ve got mixed feelings about my last day. On the one hand, I’m looking forward to taking a break, to having the chance to go home for two weeks before diving into something brand new; on the other, I’m a little sad to be leaving. Over the past four months I’ve had a chance to contribute valuable, challenging work to a team of innovative and incredibly supportive people.
There was a certain sense of incompletion, too, even as I was packing up my desk Friday afternoon. As with many files, projects under the housing file were constantly in flux, being updated or revised or replaced as necessary. Much of my work was in the process of revision, and will continue to change over the next few months. I hate leaving projects incomplete, but that’s just the nature of the work. It’ll have to be enough for me to know I’ve left my mark.
The past two weeks have been a little crazy. Just like with school, the end of term came up a whole lot faster than I was anticipating, and suddenly it seemed like I’d left absolutely everything to the last minute. The big piece I’d hoped to finish was the housing authority toolkit, which I’d spent several weeks on already; I had this vague fantasy of being able to hand my supervisor a glossy, highly polished final product on my last day, but realistically I was just aiming to get a solid draft done so that the next person to work on the project had a clear place to start. In that respect I think I can say I’ve succeeded—as of Thursday the gem of the toolkit, a housing policy template, was compiled into one (long) master document, complete with annexes and its own fancy table of contents (if I’ve nothing else, I’ve certainly become a little more computer-functional this semester). The whole thing is currently hovering at around 90 pages, and while I would have liked to see it through to the end, I’m also aware of the fact that it might be a little cumbersome to edit. Passing the project off to someone new does have some advantages, it seems.
What slowed down my work on the toolkit over the last week and a half was my involvement with another, slightly last-minute project. Last Friday, my manager agreed to “lend me out” to the schools team to help out with completing the annual national priority ranking for schools, which is basically a tool used to evaluate proposed school projects (stuff like renovations, extensions, or sometimes the construction of new schools) based on a series of criteria and come up with a list of which should be funded first.
Ordinarily, I think the schools team would have been fine handling this on their own. They do it every year, after all. The problem on Friday was that, all of a sudden, they were required to have the list completed in a matter of a few days; and aside from the fact that this is a pretty big task on its own, there was the additional problem that at this point in the year, most regions hadn’t even submitted their scored proposals yet. So while the rest of the schools team was frantically harassing the regions, the glamorous task of inputting project information into the ranking list as it trickled in fell to me.
I guess I made the mistake of getting this done a little too quickly, because the manager for the schools team spent the next week dropping by my desk with new projects for me to work on. It jolted me out of my housing tunnel vision, giving me a better sense of some of the other work that goes on within Community Infrastructure Branch—and, probably for the better, a whole lot more experience with Excel. I’m proud to say I can now craft what could almost be called an attractive spreadsheet. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t great; my last week-and-a-half of work would have been crazy enough on its own as I scrambled to get everything wrapped up on time, even without a few new last-minute assignments from a file with which I had very little experience. My time management strategies ended up involving some figurative acrobatics to pull everything together before I took off for good. Still, I must have made something of an impression—my honorary team membership was enough to get a nice note on my goodbye card from the schools team manager.
In the midst of the controlled chaos of my Last Day at AANDC, I am sorry to say I also dealt with what is very probably the most unpleasant and pointless experience of my entire semester: the departure form. For mysterious reasons, it is significantly easier to get into the government than it is to get out of it—that is, while starting a new government position (for a student, anyway) doesn’t require much more paperwork than a security clearance form and the letter of offer, finishing your contract requires you to complete the notorious departure form. This entailed myself and two other co-op students in my branch braving the elements for the ten-minute walk to our main building, where we went up to the twenty-first floor and proceeded to spend the next hour working our way down from there, collecting signatures on the way. You can’t officially take off without about twelve different people signing off on your form, all scattered throughout the building. Their desks were usually marked with brightly coloured signs reading DEPARTURE FORMS THIS WAY, but it was still something of a scavenger hunt (minus the prize at the end. My only consolation was getting to keep the little plastic wallet I used for my ID badge.)
Departure forms aside, though, it was a good semester, and one that ended on a high note. My team went out to celebrate our last day, and to ask myself and the other student on my team what we’d thought of our experience at AANDC, in addition to the required so-what’s-next-in-your-life? conversation. My manager gave the two of us a good Life Talk—his career advice, which I’m planning on taking to heart, was to remember that job interviews (and jobs in general) should be a two-way street. You’re trying to convince the employer why they should want to hire you, but you should also come out of the interview with a good sense of why you should want to work for them. Don’t be cocky, but do be confident.
December 8, 2014
ARTISTRY, AND MY LACK THEREOF
I paid my first-ever visit to next semester’s workplace recently. It was just for a few minutes – I needed to sign some forms for my security clearance – but I was happy to discover that compared to my current placement, the Department of Justice is both a) a shorter commute and b) a nicer building (sorry, AANDC). While I was there, my supervisor-to-be took the opportunity to give me a thirty-second tour of some of the work I’d be doing: right in the entrance was a TV flipping between news slides, which I’ll be responsible for designing. She also pointed out a poster that their current co-op student had designed for an upcoming event.
And it was a nice poster. Nice enough to be a little intimidating. Graphic design is not, and has never been, my strong point. I seem to lack any sort of spatial awareness, which I try to make up for by using a lot of bright colours. I guess you could say my artwork succeeds at grabbing people’s attention, but not in a good way.
Anyway, I figured that was a problem to be dealt with in January – after all, back in August I would have been horrified at the thought of attempting French translation during my current placement, and now it’s no big deal. I guess that’s what they call professional development. But in a strange coincidence, my supervisor at AANDC actually had me doing something bordering on graphic design later that same day: I was tasked with developing an infographic to compare the spectrum of off-reserve housing options with those available on-reserve.
The research was actually an interesting process. Obviously, after three months on the housing team at AANDC, I’m fairly familiar with federal First Nation housing programs and the housing options typically available on reserve – and, unfortunately, all the gaps therein. But despite living off-reserve, I actually knew next to nothing about off-reserve housing programs and options, so a crash course in rent-geared-to-income housing and assisted homeownership was actually pretty enlightening.
Aside from the research component of the assignment, though, I think I can honestly that this was the most difficult project I’ve been given all semester. After two years of writing essays, reports, and creative writing pieces with word-counts in the thousands, it is incredibly difficult to attempt a project where all your research needs to fit into tidy little diagram bubbles on a single PowerPoint slide.
My solution? Well, I may have gone a little overboard. The final product that I emailed to my supervisor was a PowerPoint file containing not one but five different infographics for her to choose from, since I’d struggled to find the best way of organizing information to create an obvious comparison between spectrums. Accompanying the file was a slightly embarrassed email confessing my intrinsic lack of artistry, which my supervisor accepted with good humour before working with me to make some improvements. All in all, though, I didn’t fair too badly. I guess if you keep trying something over and over again you’re bound to start improving eventually, so it looks like there’s hope for me yet.
Last week I was assigned what is most likely my last major project under my current work placement, which is kind of weird to think about. Along with the other student on my team, I’m responsible for putting together a housing policy “toolkit” for First Nations. Essentially, what we’re looking to develop is a collection of policy samples from housing programs and housing authorities that are already up and running, something that interested First Nations can use as a foundation for developing or improving policy that will fit the situation of their particular community.
Of course, before we can start assembling the toolkit, we’ve had to pull together some basic materials. Policy samples are, unfortunately, not something Community Infrastructure Branch just happens to have lying around; and even if that were the case, our wonderful electronic file-sharing system makes it just about impossible to find anything unless you know exactly what you’re looking for.
The research I did for this project was an interesting juxtaposition to the sort of research I do for my academic work, which mostly involves holing myself up in the library for several hours and methodically downloading every academic paper I can find that bears even the slightest connection to my topic (just in case, you know?). I started with some basic online scanning, which led me to discover two things:
1) There are more individual housing authorities in Saskatchewan than in the entire rest of Canada combined; and
2) Most housing authorities – including all of the housing authorities in Saskatchewan – do not post their policies online.
Which meant I had to move on to step two: contacting these housing authorities myself.
Over the past three-and-a-bit months I seem to have developed what I can only assume is a symptom of working in the government (or maybe just working in general) for any period of time. There’s a strange sort of disconnect from reality that happens the second I step into my building every morning, where everything outside of my little bubble of work fades into the background. It’s there, theoretically, but I can’t really see any of it. Even other sectors within AANDC become a little hazy; I had to pay a visit to the Northern Affairs offices the other day, and it was like venturing into another dimension.
And that’s just in my department. The thought of reaching out to municipal housing authorities – of interacting with someone who wasn’t a public servant – well, it was kind of intimidating.
The first phase was easy. I just drafted an email asking for policy samples and sent it out to just about every housing authority in the country, then sat back and waited for replies. The mystery of Saskatchewan’s massive collection of housing authorities was solved in the first wave of responses, as nearly every housing manager in the province informed me that all of their policy is created by the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation, to which I would have to forward all my inquiries.
But after that, I had to move on to pestering people on the phone. This isn’t my strong point; I tend to get nervous and forget relatively important details, like why I’m calling and how to form complete sentences. I managed to put it off for a few days, psyching myself up while my phone lurked accusingly on my desk.
When I finally got around to it, though, the whole process was actually pretty bearable. I spent a solid ten minutes before I made each call laying out a selection of useful reference documents for myself and writing down the points I wanted to touch on, and I think overall each conversation went reasonably well. I went over our project plan, described the toolkit we were trying to create, and touched on elements of policy we were looking for, and in return the housing staff I spoke to either agreed to email me some policy samples or gave an ambiguous we’ll look into it. A success, overall, and definitely less painful than all the job interviews I had to do over the phone when I was looking for this fall’s work term placement.
And that leaves me where I am now, up to my ears in random policy samples that have drifted in from all over and trying to figure out some way to put them all together in a semi-organized fashion. The goal is to end up with something straightforward and comprehensive—“not too long” was specified in the instructions from my supervisor, which looks like it might be a challenge. I’m aiming for something shorter than The Lord of the Rings, but we’ll see what happens.
November 10, 2014:
COMMENT DIT-ON “LOAN DEFAULTS AND DEBT WRITE-OFF” EN FRANÇAIS?
Although I tend to jump around between projects as they come up, there is one file I’ve been working on long-term right from the start: Ministerial Loan Guarantees. I won’t go into too much detail, although if you’re desperately curious all 60 pages of the MLG manual plus the associated terms and conditions are up on AANDC’s website. Speaking as someone who has now read most of the manual (and the terms and conditions, which are by far the most exciting part) multiple times, I can assure you it’s a riveting read. Not much character development, I’ll admit, but the plot is very consistent.
There are a number of pieces associated with this file. Right now the biggest chunk is a revamp of all the associated documentation: the manual, the terms and conditions, the environmental review guide, and the forms for the borrowers are all due for an update. Even though we’ve got revised versions of everything currently saved in our system, it’s a longer process than I’d anticipated; before anything gets posted, it has to be sent out to all the regional representatives for approval, plus the legal team, plus the financial team, and then after we make the necessary changes it all gets sent out again, and so on and so forth. And because all of this is being sent to regions with the intention of eventually getting it all posted on our website, it means I’ve come up against one of the more nerve-wracking elements of life in government: bilingualism.
I took core French all the way through high school and graduated feeling reasonably pleased with my abilities (though I was forced to accept, after writing my grade twelve French exam, that there was absolutely no hope of ever understanding le subjonctif). I felt fairly comfortable holding a conversation in French about, say, the weather, or writing a short paragraph in French, probably also about the weather. But I was by no means bilingual—something I made clear in my job interview, for the record. Obviously you shouldn’t lie about anything during a job interview, but you especially shouldn’t lie about being bilingual, because then you will be forced to work in French on a regular basis.
Anyway, I’d managed to steer more or less clear of anything involving French until this MLG work really got underway. Then my monolingualism started to become a bit of a hindrance: I could draft presentations, emails, and changes to documents in English, but then my supervisor on the MLG file had to take time out of her schedule to translate everything—either that or we had to send my work for official translation, which is sort of unnecessary for a one-paragraph teleconference invitation.
Looking back, I’m not sure exactly how I ended up volunteering myself for this role. Going into this job, working on my French was not a priority for me—until one day I put together a graph and realized how much easier it would be if I could just look up the graph titles and translate it myself. It started small, but considering the amount of stuff needing translating, my supervisor on the MLG file quickly became extremely supportive of my interest in French and started assigning more and more bilingual work for me.
Now I’m at the point where I can draft meeting minutes, correspondence, and presentations in both languages. The French comes slowly, and it takes a lot of looking up new words and bullying my brain into remembering verb conjugations, but I’ve gradually started to get a little faster and a lot more comfortable. I’ve also been really lucky that my supervisor on the MLG file is so encouraging, because she takes the time to go over my work, correct my mistakes, and give me a few tips. It’s sort of like being back in my high school French class, but without the pressure of being marked. And, of course, with some new vocabulary: oddly enough, my high school French curriculum didn’t include a unit on lender procedures for loans in arrears.
In (belated) honour of Hallowe’en, I felt it might be appropriate to share a scary story from Community Infrastructure Branch. Take a look at the cabinet in the picture above. From a distance, it might not seem too remarkable. Innocuous. Boring, even. It’s just a cabinet, after all.
I realize the term arch-nemesis might be slightly out of date, but I have to say, I am perfectly willing to make an exception for this cabinet. I don’t think it’s an overstatement at all to say that this thing ruins my life on a regular basis.
It’s all thanks to that black circle on the top drawer. It might be hard to tell from the picture, but that’s a combination lock. The reason we have this monster at all is because some of the documents we work on need to be stored securely: for instance, all the documents related to the CO-OP hiring process have recently taken up residence there, due to the fact that they contain a lot of personal information about the students hired for next semester.
Now, I spent four years using a combination lock every day at high school. I like to think I know my way around them by now. But this thing is a whole new story. Getting this cabinet open involves an incredibly complex sequence of turns, half-turns, directional changes, pressure adjustments, and numbers that aren’t included in the main combination. Sometimes the only thing to do is give up, find something else to work on for fifteen minutes, and hope the cabinet will be in a more benevolent mood when you come back to try again. And it’s difficult to find the words to encapsulate the utter despair invoked by doing ninety percent of the combination successfully, only to miss the final number by the slightest millimeter and know, even as you’re tugging uselessly at the handle, that you’re going to have to start all. Over. Again.
On the other hand, despite my intense hatred of this particular piece of office hardware, I guess in a sense it also means I can count myself lucky. I’ve never been brought to tears by drafting a set of procedures for a new program, or proofreading those MLG forms (not that I’ve ever cried over the cabinet, either, just to be clear. I wouldn’t want to give it the satisfaction). Similarly, whenever I get stuck on a particularly difficult assignment – maybe I’m waiting for my supervisor to get back to me, or maybe I’m just having trouble finding the information I need – all I have to do is turn around, spend a few moments staring at that cabinet, and then resume my work with renewed determination. It’s a powerful reminder that whatever difficulty I might be stuck on, it certainly can’t be as bad as wrestling with a malicious hunk of metal.
I’m also proud to say that I am, very slowly, becoming slightly more adept at getting this thing open. It’s a slow learning curve, but recently I’ve reached the point where I can get it open on the first try on a semi-regular basis. I’m sure I could pull some heavy-handed symbolism out of this, but I think it might be best just to call it a sign of personal and professional growth and leave it at that.
In similarly spooky news, Regional Operations got into the Hallowe’en spirit by hosting a pumpkin carving contest the week of Hallowe’en. One of the other CO-OP students took on the task of carving the pumpkin for our directorate; as a student on the fire prevention team, she decided to go with a thematically appropriate fireman pumpkin. The truly terrifying part, as you can see, is that both the hose and the fire hydrant are engulfed in flames. And in case that was too subtle, the thing sticking out of our evil fireman’s mouth is a severed finger.
October 22, 2014:
A CRASH COURSE IN POLICY ANALYSIS
It’s hard to believe, but the end of this week will just about mark the halfway point of my first work term. As with many other things (school, summer jobs, orchestra rehearsals) this is the part where I’ve started to relax; I sort of know what I’m doing by now, but I don’t have to start worrying about wrapping things up yet. The infamous work term report has yet to rear its bulky, tedious head.
(As a side note and hot tip, I’ve found what I like to think of as a “cheat” to the report. At the suggestion of one of my coworkers, I’ve been keeping up a chart that tracks all my major projects and duties at work, breaking each one down based on the specific tasks it entails. This way I’ve got tons of material already recorded for the work term report, plus a bunch of bullets that only need a tiny bit of reformatting before going on my updated résumé.)
The reason this chart is such a life-saver for me is that aside from a few bigger projects and regular duties, most of my work consists of small, short assignments. This is perfect for me and my three-second attention span, because it means that I usually have five or six things on the go at once, and when I need a break from one project I can just switch to another. Having fifteen different word documents open at once can get a little confusing, I guess, but so far it’s been working well for me.
One larger project that I’m really excited about is related to program design. Way back in September, my supervisor had me working on a research project regarding housing management on First Nation reserves; I got to read and summarize a research report of epic proportions, dig through a few old program decks, and finally pull it all together in a package for my manager and supervisor to review. This included my first-ever box note, which was not quite as exciting as it sounded. (It’s… a note. With a box on it. The information goes inside the box. Magical.)
The project disappeared for a little while, but it resurfaced again last week in the form of an assignment that my supervisor gave to me and the other student on my team: take this research and use it to design a potential pilot project. I’ll admit the prospect was a little daunting; I’ve had plenty of experience researching and summarizing through my schoolwork, but moving beyond the theoretical stage was new ground for me. It’s a complicated process—I didn’t need the firsthand experience to figure out that much—but it’s also deeply creative, and the challenge is one I’m familiar with from all the time I spend writing fiction. Instead of hashing out things like character, conflict, and symbolism, my partner on the project and I spend a lot of our time brainstorming over eligibility, application process, and funding activities—and just like creative writing, some ideas come right from the start, while others grow out of the process. We need to make sure the communities that need to access this project will be able to do so, that it will be funding activities that will actually benefit communities, and that whatever this program is helping to develop will be self-sustaining. And, of course, we need to convince the multitude of people above us in the department that yes, this project is important, and yes, it should be funded. And this is where I’m very, very glad—yet again—to have two years of university essay-writing experience under my belt.
The thing is, writing is hard. You have to practice. A lot. I handed in an assignment to my manager last Friday—a piece of correspondence I’d drafted that afternoon—and, as he pointed out after he’d read it over, government departments can spend years training their employees to write the way that I’ve learned to write for my classes. As a side note, the same piece of correspondence also earned me the most unique compliment I have ever received in my life: my supervisor emailed me to say thanks for doing the assignment, and also to tell me that my writing skills were “as beautiful as a swan touching delicately down on a frozen pond.” And yes, that’s verbatim. I’m thinking of getting it framed.
BUT ENOUGH BRAGGING—TIME FOR A REALITY CHECK
The past few weeks have been kind of hectic. I had my position at AANDC during the day, and then I got to come home and… apply for new positions, since I’m scheduled for another work term in the winter semester. It seemed strange to be looking for a new job just as I was beginning my first one, but I guess that’s the way it works.
I was lucky enough to interview with the Department of Justice, and a day or so later I was offered the position, so that’s where I’m headed come January—I’ll be wrapping up with policy analysis in December, for the time being at least, and moving on to giving communications a shot.
In fact, job interviews are something I’ve been doing from both sides of the table recently—that is, both as an interviewee and an interviewer. One of my more long-term duties is hiring my replacement: with my supervisor’s guidance, I’ve posted the job description and screened résumés, and I’ve also had a part in conducting interviews, doing reference checks, and finally choosing our candidates. Now it’s on to the really fun part: getting all the paperwork in order. But hey, I figure nothing can go as wrong for our two new students as it did for me—after I accepted my current position back in June, my security clearance forms spent an exciting three weeks lost in the mail before boomeranging back to me undelivered. Yikes.
Going through the hiring process from the employer’s point of view is definitely an enlightening experience—I had the opportunity to discover for myself how difficult it is for a single résumé to stand out when it’s thrown in with ninety others. For someone who was simultaneously applying to new positions herself, it could be a little disheartening at times; mostly, though, it just made me hyper-aware of the details that make for a strong résumé.
Hint: it’s mostly the same things they talk about in COOP 1000. Really. There’s no special trick. Those modules are there to help.
This is her first blog entry:
October 1, 2014: HOW I GOT HERE
The first thing I should admit is that I’m not what you’d call a career-oriented person. That is, when I started applying to universities in grade twelve, I wasn’t planning ahead for some ultimate dream job, or really any sort of job at all; I just picked something I was interested in and decided I’d figure it out from there. I think it’s a pretty common situation, whether we decide to own up to it or not. I’ll also admit that for a long time, I didn’t consider co-op as a viable part of my life. I wanted to study English, after all; co-op was for people studying engineering and computer science and business. While co-op seems to be becoming more common for arts degrees, that’s still the same reaction I get from a lot of people when I tell them about my program: “You’re doing co-op? But aren’t you in English?” It seems to be a well-kept secret that yes, actually, things like writing and research and analysis do serve a purpose in the “real world.” Anyway, university application time rolled around in grade twelve, and I started accumulating the traditional stack of promotional literature. Carleton’s brochure made its way into my pile by accident—it belonged to a friend who was interested in the architecture program, but it ended up in my backpack, and I started flipping through it. Why not? And there it was: English was included in the list of programs that offered co-op options.
It didn’t elicit more than a marginally interested ‘huh’ from me at the time, but it stuck in the back of my mind, and eventually I started to think—well, why not? My personal plan for the future got kind of hazy beyond my four-year degree. That didn’t mean I was unmotivated, or lazy, or aimless; it just meant I didn’t know exactly what my options were, much less which ones I would be interested in pursuing. Co-op offered an extremely appealing solution to that problem: if I extended my degree just a little bit beyond that original four-year plan, I could get the chance to test-drive a handful of different positions with different organizations. Not only would I graduate with a whole bunch of interesting experiences to add to my résumé, I would also have a better idea of what I liked and disliked in a career, and what my next steps should be. Throw in the support provided from the co-op department in terms of job hunting, and that was it—I was sold.
THE ROAD SO FAR
At the beginning of September, I started my first co-op placement as a Junior Policy Analyst at Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. I’m in the Community Infrastructure Branch, where I work with a small team on developing housing policy and dealing with housing-related issues relevant to First Nations land and communities. I’d love to say I slipped into my role seamlessly, but of course, that wasn’t quite the case. I spent the first week or so in varying states of bemusement—there were so many acronyms! My ID badge didn’t work! I had to use spreadsheets! And what on earth was a box note, anyway? Luckily, I’ve got a very supportive team, and one where someone always has time to answer my many questions. I’ve gone to meetings, completed a few research assignments, undergone a self-taught crash course in Microsoft Excel, updated policy documents, and even written a few box notes—and somehow, in the midst of all that, four weeks have flown by.
What was sort of overwhelming on my first day is now just part of my job. Four weeks—that’s about a quarter of my first work term. It seems like such a short period of time, but in four weeks I’ve learned a whole lot about my job and a few things about myself, too. I’ve learned that I love juggling multiple projects simultaneously, and that I like digging through complicated, technical language and decoding it for those who don’t have time to read over an entire 100-page policy document themselves (I realize that might sound boring, but trust me—it’s deeply satisfying). I’ve also learned that those skills I’ve been working on in school for the past few years really do give me a leg up in the workplace: writing, editing, researching, and critical analysis are things I’m doing every day. Even better, they’re things I enjoy doing every day, even outside of an academic context. I’m thrilled with my position at AANDC; I was lucky enough to be offered my first choice of placement during the interview process, and it’s one that has gone on to exceed my expectations. My work interests me and often challenges me, and I’m looking forward to continuing to share the rest of my co-op experience with all of you!
Read our archived Co-op blog postings from Bryanne Mitton.