Alumna embraces ‘Yes, and …’ toward a better world

Special to Western News

Jennifer Stranges, BA’12 (Media, Information & Technoculture), never expected how much her role at Cystic Fibrosis Canada would change her own life.

Jennifer Stranges first heard about cystic fibrosis (CF) as a frosh at Western during the Shinerama. Today, she is part of a dedicated corporate communications team at Cystic Fibrosis Canada, one of the world’s top charitable organizations committed to finding a cure for the disease.

“When I knew I was ready to make the change in my career from TV production to communications, I thought long and hard about what would bring me long-term joy and make me feel valued,” said Stranges, BA’12 (Media, Information & Technoculture). “Doing work that helped people really mattered to me. The non-profit sector was the perfect fit.”

Her journey toward that fit was not as straight forward as her ambition, however.

“My mind was set on doing a hands-on broadcast program in Toronto. I was wait-listed for the program of my choice and I took it as a sign I should study something more general that kept my career options open. At the time, my older sister was at Western studying MIT. I listened to her excitement about the program, took a leap of faith and came to London,” she explained.

The day before Stranges came to Western, she was called by “that Toronto university” and offered a spot in the television program. She has no regrets about her decision to decline.

“I’ve always been a critical thinker. My nature is to challenge the status quo, to ask why, and to peel back the layers of how and why people consume media and react to it the way they do,” she said. “Instructors and courses within FIMS not only encouraged this kind of thinking, they nurtured it. I’m a stronger, more strategic communicator for having studied MIT at Western.”

At Western, she also embraced the famed student experience.

“It’s safe to say I jumped in deep during my time there,” said Stranges, who was involved in sophing, the Big Purple Couch and FIMS Student Council, where she was the Vice-President of Events.

Like many alumni, Stranges credits that extra-curricular involvement as contributing as much to her career success as her education. “I was able to tailor my Western Experience to help me develop the skills I knew I would need in the ‘real world’. It’s definitely my No. 1 piece of advice to students currently at Western: Get involved! Those experiences set you apart from others in the job-hunting process and prepare you for the workplace.”

A four-month academic internship with Cityline, Canada’s longest-running women’s lifestyle television show, provided the foundation from which she launched her career. “From gaining credible work experience and networking skills, I was hired to fill in for a leave. It was pretty incredible to have gone from being the intern, to being the one managing all the interns, all within one year.”

Leveraging that experience, Stranges landed at the mecca of Canadian television, namely CTV, and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Working for Canada’s No. 1 daytime lifestyle show was invaluable in teaching her about storytelling and the challenges and rewards of dealing with a live studio audience. She coordinated the logistics for international shoots, worked on specials that went on to earn ratings gold, and developed her storytelling skills tenfold, she explained.

“Before leaving the show, I was in charge of securing all of the audience giveaways and running the social media accounts. By interacting directly with the viewers through social media and having autonomy in telling the show’s story online, I came to understand that using my communications and PR skills was what I wanted to do,” she continued.

“You are better at work you care about. Full stop.”

Stranges never expected how much her role at Cystic Fibrosis Canada would change her own life.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common fatal genetic disease affecting children and young adults in Canada. The disease has various effects on the body, but mainly affects the digestive system and lungs. The degree of CF severity differs from person to person, however, the persistence and ongoing infection in the lungs, with destruction of lungs and loss of lung function, will eventually lead to death in the majority of people.

It is estimated that one in every 3,600 children born in Canada has CF. More than 4,100 Canadian children, adolescents, and adults with cystic fibrosis attend specialized CF clinics.

“Growing older is a blessing,” Stranges stressed. “You’ll never hear me complain about inching towards 30 years old or panicking when I get my first grey hair or wrinkle. Good health is so important and when you have it, you can’t take it for granted.”

Her passion is obvious, as is her formidable wit, which she uses to gain trust and lighten an otherwise serious mood or topic. Twitter is one her favourite platforms for sharing her observations and her sense of humour, as her twitter account demonstrates:

Stranges credits her humour to her paternal genetics and to her basic-level improv training at The Second City in Toronto.

“Improv is a great way to practice thinking on your feet and letting go of the certainty of a particular outcome,” she said. “The first rule of improv is ‘Yes, and …’ which means you never reject an idea, you always build on it. That rule has helped me navigate through my career. I’m constantly building on my experiences and letting go of when things don’t go the way I planned.”

The health charity sector requires a real emotional labour – she often interviews members of the CF community for media opportunities – but her warmth and light-hearted approach have helped her manage those feelings and foster meaningful connections. As a professional communicator, gaining trust and putting individuals at ease is central to success.

“Humour makes us feel more connected, it checks our egos, and it’s a strategic way to say something without implicitly saying it. When someone is giving me the gift of their vulnerability about their health and the impacts of living with CF, it’s only fair I begin those conversations by being vulnerable myself.

“Sharing laughter is one of the best ways to demonstrate your vulnerabilities, to connect with someone, and to make them feel comfortable enough to share their experience with you.”