In what could be a first among Canadian universities, Western has hired 12 recent graduates as part of a program to cultivate change-making campus staff from homegrown student talent.
The career launch initiative provides full-time employment and mentoring for new associates in key strategic areas, while the university benefits from their unique expertise and insights, said Terry Rice, a senior advisor of communications and marketing in Western’s human resources department and one of the co-leaders of the program.
“We want them to know this isn’t just a place where you can launch your education; Western is also a place where you can launch your career.” ~ Terry Rice
“The competition for talent is really fierce – and one of the best talent pools we can find is already at Western. And because we want to retain good people, it’s also on us to present an exceptional employee experience for them so that they want to stay,” he said.
Some may find the work a good fit; some will find it a perfect fit.
“As soon as they told me, ‘you’ve got the job,’ I knew I’d found my sweet spot, the sweet spot some people look for all their lives,” said Laura Alejandrina Ramirez, who graduated with degrees in social justice and theology.
Ramirez is working in the Office of Indigenous Initiatives (OII) to facilitate culturally relevant materials for faculty and staff and is also manager of the Indigenous healing garden.
“There is no job under the sun that is like this one,” they said. “I come from a family of underdogs and it felt really good to step into a role where I could grow as a person and, at the same time, help the community.”
Key elements of the newly created positions include full-time employment for two years; ongoing professional development and networking; continuous mentoring; participation in partnerships that benefit the London-area community outside the campus gates; and a commitment to advancing the work of equity, diversity, inclusion and decolonization (EDI-D).
Some other post-secondary institutions provide short-term internships or temporary work placements, but Rice and his program co-leader Katie Osborne haven’t found another model like this that embeds employment, professional development and community outreach for recent graduates.
“It’s about providing this group with opportunities, yes, but there’s so much we can also learn from them. We’re getting a great deal of value from the work they’re doing,” said Osborne, director of talent acquisition at Western.
“They have so many great ideas and so much passion. These will be our new superstar employees.”
“We’re doing something significant right out of the gate,” said Lauren Waabaabagaakwe Poeta, who grew up in Curve Lake First Nation, has a BA in anthropology and is a few weeks away from earning her master’s degree.
She is working in the OII to help launch an Indigenous learning honours specialty for students. “Being able to help enact change is really rewarding. It’s meaningful work, and I’m discovering there’s a lot of meaningful work taking place across Western.”
Professional development activities for the dozen so far have included the Kairos blanket exercise in support of reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and a LinkedIn workshop to improve their professional presence.
As recent graduates, the associates also have insights into campus life that more established staff might not. “I feel it’s reshaping what university staffing can be like,” Poeta said. “We know the campus really well and so we can bring that student perspective into the office as an associate.”
There were 142 applications for the 12 positions in areas including sustainability, communications, sports and recreation, and the OII.
To find the strongest possible cohort, the university made a deliberate effort to connect with a diverse range of student groups, organizations and clubs; through personal contact, social media including Reddit and Discord; and an information session.
“We need to be out and more visible where our best candidates are looking,” said Osborne. “I think we can confidently say we wouldn’t have got these exceptional candidates if we hadn’t been so intentional.”
Jessica Ouko, who graduated with a degree in international relations in June, spotted the opportunity through an Instagram post amplified by the Black Students Association, and then she applied after she attended an information session that explained the available opportunities.
“If I hadn’t actually met them and been encouraged that my skills would be welcomed, I know I wouldn’t have even thought to apply.”
“I’d considered Western as a place to learn and leave, not a place to work.” ~ Jessica Ouko
Now Ouko is working in the Office of EDI to develop best policies and practices for improving campus accessibility for all.
Ramirez, whose traditional name is Child of the Rain, said the pandemic had almost quashed their hope for a career with meaning. But this is an opportunity to shine and “to step into my shoes as a community healer.”
Having ready-made communities in OII and among the career launch cohort has been valuable, Ramirez said. “I can’t be happier that they began this career launch program because that means they’re confident we can do good, and we can.”
While much of this new process is directed specifically towards the associates, it is also helping human resources professionals and other leaders hone their skills in recruiting, finding, hiring, welcoming, training and retaining diverse staff.
“I hear every single day from leaders looking at the recruitment market, looking to grow and innovate,” Osborne said.
Some departments and units have now started welcoming all new staff members with Western-branded gear, just as this cohort received a gift basket of Western swag.
Others have improved their on-boarding process for new staff, with mentorship and more opportunities for shared experiences.
Some of the new associates, who started in June, have already finished one project and moved on to the next one. “It’s early days but they are such an engaged group,” Osborne said.