A new job I began with a GTA-based start-up a few years ago saw me relocate to Toronto. Growing up in nearby Waterloo region, Toronto was a city I visited often, but never had the occasion to live in. This would surely be a big change, and I knew I wanted to begin this new journey by reaching out to something familiar.
That something familiar was the Western University Toronto Alumni Branch. Having completed my undergraduate degree at Western, and having several family members who did the same, I always felt closely connected to the school. I contacted the alumni branch’s staff liaison to inquire about involvement before I even packed my belongings.
The Toronto Alumni Branch facilitated my transition to a brand new city, bringing the familiar to the unfamiliar. Desire to step into a comfortable network of my Western alumni peers was the reason I reached out to the branch initially, but the past two years of volunteering with this network saw several unexpected benefits.
What I was surprised to discover was how connected I became to the landscape and character of Toronto over a short period of time. Alumni branches exist primarily to connect networks of graduates through a variety of events that cater to diverse interests. Contributing to the execution of these events brought me to venues all over my new home, to areas I likely otherwise wouldn’t have visited – the elegant Rosewater restaurant and event space in Toronto’s Financial District, the Royal Conservatory’s majestic Koerner Hall and the historic Masonic Temple and concert hall.
These venues, and many others, offered a taste of what Toronto has to offer. They also forced me to navigate a complex network of street cars, buses and subway lines. As my familiarity with the geography and culture of the city grew, so did my confidence. About one year ago, I took on a leadership role with the branch, stepping into a newly created executive committee as Chair of Communications.
Membership in an alumni branch gave me confidence to pursue other avenues of involvement within my new community, and acted as a springboard to other professional development and community giving opportunities. It wasn’t long before I volunteer-led a national campaign for a local mental health charity, joined the executive committee of a group of young leaders affiliated with a Toronto-based hospital, and was elected to the Board of Directors of a large mental health housing provider.
The desire to reach outside my comfort zone and pursue such opportunities came about not by the many connections I created through my Western alumni engagement, but through confidence and motivation fostered by alumni involvement. One leadership role led to many others, and developed a strong desire within me to engage in a meaningful way with my community.
As my contract with my Toronto-based employer came to a close this September, I prepared to return to the Waterloo region. Accompanying me would be the confidence that comes from successfully navigating a new landscape and way of life. The local chapter of the Western Alumni Branch was my first contact in Toronto, and was the first organization I reached out to when I returned to Waterloo a few short weeks ago. I am excited to once again begin life in another city, with a familiar network of Western alumni as my base.
Rebecca Wagner is a proud Western graduate and active community builder. She volunteers extensively and helps to ensure vulnerable populations have the resources they need to realize their full potential.