Earlier this year, the Business/Higher Education Roundtable announced the ambitious goal to ensure every student at a Canadian post-secondary institution would have access to some form of meaningful work-integrated learning (WIL) experience during their education. While WIL has been a topic of discussion throughout my undergrad, I’ve seldom taken the time to reflect on the breadth of its impact on my education, and on my future.
My story plays out rather untraditionally and I think that is what makes it worth sharing. Like many before me, I was unsure of my path going into university. I enrolled in the Life Sciences program at McMaster University, hoping to major in biochemistry. Naturally, I thought I was going to be a doctor. At the end of my second year, I had started my biochemistry degree and it was clear that a career in the lab or as a physician was simply not fit for my personality.
That summer, I was fortunate enough to be employed as an intern for the Trading Documentation Department at RBC Capital Markets. This opportunity allowed me to pull on skills that I had developed as a science student but I never realized I had. Data analysis, attention to detail, and concise communication were highlighted when I ranked up to my peers who were studying business. I entered this summer with the expectation that I would be years behind, only to realize I was able to compete with the other interns. The value of this experience was endless - not only did it develop my self-confidence but it also fostered my curiosity for finance. Throughout the summer, I had the chance to work with an incredible team that was patient with my learning and supportive in my development. I learned about the culture of the company and created lasting networks that enabled me to explore different areas of the bank. This internship changed my understanding of the industry and opened me up to a world that I had never considered before.
My experience sparked a passion and enthusiasm for business. When I returned to school in the fall, I began to pursue a minor in business alongside my biochemistry major. The following summer, I returned to RBC Capital Markets to work for a different department on the recommendation of my previous manager. At the Global Trading Client Management Department, I had the opportunity to take my learning outside of the classroom and see how it played into a larger financial system. This enhanced my understanding and has led me to pay closer attention in lecture these days. During this time, I was also able to further explore areas of the bank. With a background in biochemistry and finance, I wasn’t sure I would find a place to fit in. After networking and meetings, I am happy to report that I have found my ideal fit, a group that conducts financial research in the healthcare sector and makes investment recommendations to the firm. Now, in my last year of undergrad, I can safely say that my education and my time at McMaster have been endlessly enhanced from my WIL opportunities.
These experiences forever changed my perception of the industry and the trajectory of my career. For this reason, it is disheartening to realize that only 33% of respondents in OUSA’s 2015 Ontario Postsecondary Student Survey reported that they had a WIL experience during their undergraduate studies. With only a third of post-secondary students accessing WIL, it is reassuring to know that this is a priority for the province. A key recommendation from the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel on Building the Workforce of Tomorrow is to provide at least one experiential learning opportunity to all students prior to high school graduation and another opportunity prior to graduation from post-secondary education. Consistent with the ask that was highlighted by the Business/Higher Education Roundtable, students can expect change in the upcoming years.
Although this is a positive step, my concern is that another critical piece is being overlooked. Later in the report, the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel also recommends that school boards and partners should collaborate to develop new ways of promoting different career pathways in the classroom. This is a fundamental piece that adds immense value to WIL and should be highlighted in the years to come. A story of interdisciplinary learning like mine would not be possible in many of the current post-secondary systems.
One of the core benefits of my WIL experience was the opportunity to realize that I had developed certain skills that could extend beyond my academic major. Most importantly, I realized the importance of transferrable skills and thus, my education no longer limited me but opened me up to a wide variety of career paths. In a survey by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), my peers shared similar sentiments. The majority of university students who participated in WIL agreed that their experience influenced their career goals, helped them mature as a person, and improved their ability to get along with people in work situations. Arguably, these are the true benefits to WIL that will propel us further and enable us to succeed in any field we choose. For these reasons, I ask the province and policy makers not to lose sight of the value of interdisciplinary learning and the role of transferrable skills in contributing significant value to WIL opportunities. I am calling on the province to prioritize and facilitate interdisciplinary opportunities that will allow students to explore careers that combine multiple interests. If I had not been exposed to an opportunity outside of my field of study, I cannot say that I would have found a career in science that sparks the same excitement in me as a career that combines finance and science. #MyWILis interdisciplinary.