Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Diploma Dilemmas: How Far Can a Diploma Really Get an Edmonton Woman?

In my second year of university, I survived off callow drive, white wine and student loans in a Whyte Ave apartment filled with bed-bugs and hope. Stoked to be participating in Grant MacEwan’s Bachelor of Applied Communications in Professional Writing, I was living “the dream,” fresh with the independence and desire so many young people experience in their early days as a university student. But I would soon awaken to the fact that education alone would not complete my career. It would take many times switching paths, followed by the dedication and hard work that comes with claiming a spot in my desired field. And even if I suddenly found myself fitting into said dream job, everything could change.

Some women become unhappy and go back to school for a new career. Some become laid off and have to start over. Some realize what they thought they wanted they didn’t want at all. I didn’t get that far: In my third year, I become diagnosed with a mental illness, was unable to hold down an internship and dropped out of school for fear I was wasting my time and money. At 23, after working around my illness to start a non-profit organization and write freelance, I’ve meet many other entrepreneurs who are pursuing their career without a piece of paper. It makes me wonder how far a degree or a diploma can get a woman in Edmonton. What is the outcome for our present and future graduates? How can they navigate their careers in a society that sends the message that an education is a means to an end?

 Emma, 23, knows a degree doesn’t set her up for success. After finishing her undergrad, she learned a lot about herself and widened her knowledge base, but felt she didn’t have the practical skills to start her career. After taking a year off after graduation, she is now completing a PR diploma. Her goal for graduation is to begin a career that will change throughout her life and allow her to have many job options. “When I started [my undergrad], I didn’t have any clear direction or goals in mind. I was there for the experience of going to school and to learn,” says Emma. I felt like I wasn’t ready to start a career. Now I know what career I want, and I feel much more prepared for it.”

After moving to London, Ontario from Edmonton to pursue Fashion Design at Fanshawe College, Julia completed her Fashion Design diploma this spring. “Despite many of my doubts about finding work within my field in Edmonton or Alberta in general, I have been successful in finding work here,” says the 21-year-old. “It’s true that I would still have been considered a candidate for the job without my education, as it was not a requirement, but I believe it has allowed me to stand out amongst other candidates.” Julia has already begun entrepreneurial work, as well as two new jobs here in Edmonton, both with the opportunity for advancement and career possibilities.

Malorie is another example of a transplant graduate finding work in Edmonton. The 26-year-old had previously moved to San Francisco to pursue a career in 3D modeling for video games at The Academy of Art University of San Francisco. Her true dream was to become a concept artist and/or 3D modeller for film, but went against it because she felt working in video games was more realistic. “I never found a job in video games, but my first big gig was being as a 3D modeller and post production supervisor for a feature film!” says Malorie. “This goes to show you to always follow your instinct and passion when choosing your education, in order to get what your heart needs and not just what you think you want.”

On her way to graduation from the same communications program I attended – Grant MacEwan’s Bachelor of Applied Communications in Professional Writing – Kristen is a 27 year old who recently started her copywriting business. “My degree is not really suited for teaching copywriters,” she says. “It’s just not that type of writing. So university has only really helped by allowing me the time to figure out what I want to do and teaching me how to use a semi-colon.” Just like the other entrepreneurs I’ve met, Kristen recognizes that a piece of paper isn’t what’s going to formulate her career. Still in school, she just received her first copywriting client.

Sissy is a 23-year-old who dropped out of school short of graduating in her third year due to mental and physical issues. She feels she has gained experiences, met people and accomplished things she never would have outside of university. Besides graduating, she is accomplishing all the goals she set out for herself: She works a paying job she loves, and lives a healthy and happy life. “While the fact that I didn’t graduate hangs in the back of my mind, I am flourishing without my degree,” she says. “It almost seems as if my life and employment experience, skills, passions and desires are more valuable to employers and opportunity providers.”

As future professionals, we meet many of the young women we are going to work with after college or university while we receive an education alongside them. We share many of the same experiences with these young women, and these are the people who will be helping us to form our careers. So what can we learn from other to-be-professionals who grew up in a society telling them they needed a piece of paper to succeed? What do their experiences tell present and future graduates about the outcome of their studies and how they can navigate their careers? In short: How far can a degree or diploma really get a woman in Edmonton?

Emma feels more positive now than when she finished her undergrad degree. She still thinks her undergrad was valuable, because she learned a lot of basic communication and problem solving skills, but now feels like she has the practical skills and experience that will help her get a job.

“When I started university, I just wanted my diploma,” says Kristen. “My only goal was to learn how to write. It took me two years until I figured out what I wanted to do at graduation.”

Julia’s perspective has changed a few times throughout the past three years with school. When she started she was completely optimistic about what was to come. Within the last two semesters her outlook became negative as she was constantly stressed about the workload and grades. However, once it was all over it was instant relief and now she has a completely positive attitude towards her future in the fashion industry.

“Experience is so important, and I wasn’t able to get jobs without experience,” says Malorie. For a couple years I volunteered my services just to get experience so I could get entry-level jobs. Education combined with experience gets you where I need to be.”

Sissy sees all the sides of getting an education. She sees the benefits of being connected and educated, while also seeing the financial and mental stresses students experience while in school.

Growing up, I dreamed of one goal: To become a writer. It seemed attending the writing program at Grant MacEwan University would be enough to grab a one-way-ticket to my future. But like many young women in Edmonton, I now know there are various obstacles that come with attempting to achieve your dream: Mental or physical Illness, not having the required tools for a job, having to change your career path. There is no easy answer to success, but the experiences we have inside and outside of our education is what stays with us and makes us who we will become. Whether we want to work a nine-to-five job or be an entrepreneur, the results are the same: We make our own outcome.

Published in the July/August issue of Edmonton Woman Magazine.

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