September starts & the turning of leaves: orientation with the incoming MPC cohort

I love September because it invokes all the excitement and anxiety related to going ‘back to school.’ For Orientation Week this year (2015), I spoke at both OISE and Ryerson about transitions.

For this post, I’m sharing the script for my talk to this year’s incoming Master of Professional Communication students at Ryerson University (Class of 2016). As I just finished my research paper for this very program, I was feeding off both my elation and exhaustion!

Shout outs to my supervisor, Dr. Charles H. Davis (RTA/FCAD) and Graduate Program Director, Dr. Wendy Freeman (ProCom/FCAD), I mention them a couple times in this piece.

Not too long ago, I was sitting right where you are now, on the other side of this boardroom table. I was half-asleep, awkwardly frozen from the air conditioning, exhausted from the summertime work hustle, and frankly frightened about putting my career on hold to start the program. Professional communication? I remember thinking, like what does that even really mean?

Yet, despite the worry and nervousness, I knew why I wanted to take this program. Of course, little voices in my head had me second-guessing this choice at various points in the year, but now, in retrospect, I have to say choosing Ryerson and choosing the MPC program were two of the best decisions of my life.

In August, when we did our round-the-table introductions, it was very clear that our class was a diverse bunch, each of us unique in our life contexts, mixed academic and professional paths and plans, and like yours, we had a colourful assortment of research interests. Fast-forward twelve months, it’s incredible to recognize our transformations and soon, celebrate our achievements. I’m equally excited for what comes for you.

My advice may not be revolutionary, but I’ve had quite a remarkable year. Each of you will carve your own path, each one equally extraordinary in its own right.

My first point of advice: Be open to change.

I’m a planner. I strategize for a living & I had a neat plan for my year in the MPC program. I had plans to continue my work in technology innovations in education, but that prospective supervisor – Wendy – was going on sabbatical, unbeknown to me. The seemingly amazing internship I lined up over the summer had a long, long list of tasks I already knew how to do. And a couple months into the program, my research interests were changing, shifting – morphing in unpredictable ways.

While it’s nice to have plans and expectations, I think the best learning and experiences emerge when you’re receptive to new opportunities, new ideas, thinking and doing outside the box. Ryerson is an interesting place for this. Be receptive and responsive to the opportunities that will surely come your way.

Point 2. Find your peeps.

I’m sure you’re all off to a great start, getting to know your fellow students. That social component is so key. Yet, word from the wise (and this is my second Master’s) – graduate study can be awfully isolating and lonely. In a few months, you will become fully immersed, almost obsessed in a particular topic. Soon your knowledge of this topic will exceed that of your attentive peers – and perhaps even your supervisor. Find organizations, groups, and people who share your interests – having conversations with them, receiving their mentorship and guidance, and leveraging their networks and expertise will accelerate your own learning.

So whether it’s tech start ups, classic communication, entrepreneurship, advocacy for a particular cause, whatever the case may be – find people whose ideas and practices resonate with you. You will find you won’t have to go through this year-long academic journey alone. Go to conferences, attend events, not with the goal of obtaining the most business cards or writing copious amounts of notes, but to meet new colleagues for your promising career. These relationships can really “make” your career. Spend the time cultivating a new community.

Point 3. Related to the last point… In time, your path, perspective, and position in the program will become increasingly clear. Own your truth, and pursue your goals with no apologies. It can become increasingly stressful to see what your fellow classmates are doing. Be your own yardstick.

Some of you will have clear goals for the workplace. If that’s the case, go after that wholeheartedly. Some of you want to explore, need more experience, or desire something different. That’s completely alright.

When my peers started to apply, interview then secure awesome new positions, I started to think, ‘Oh gosh, I should be doing that.’ But my supervisor, and Wendy for that matter, were very keen to remind me of my goals and plans. It’s really easy to be overwhelmed, get off-track, and lose sight of what you wanted to do. Surround yourself with people who will keep you in check, push you when you need motivation, direct you when you need guidance, and support you when you need help.

Lastly, the big picture piece of advice.

Run, don’t walk, but remember to smell the roses.

Someone once described the MPC program as a sprint, not a marathon. It’s tough, it’s quick, it goes by in a blur. The first few weeks of September will be your warm-up period – after that, it’s off to the races.

Smelling the roses, to me, is all about self-care. It’s a busy year and it’s easy to lose yourself in the work, stress out, and feel grossly ill-equipped and overwhelmed.

Give yourself the latitude to learn. You are here to build your expertise. Own what you know and own what you don’t know. It’s OK to not know. That’s why you’re here to learn, develop, and grow.

Despite the constant reminders that the MPC is a sprint, a hustle, a hectic year… you will have some spare time. Carve time out to yourself, to do things that make you happy. Make time for things and activities you love. For some of you, that will be breaking a sweat in the gym, going to the spa or mall, going to the awesome new brew pub, or taking sweet, sweet naps.

Despite your desire to live a balanced lifestyle, you will likely have some long nights. You might feel a little tired. Borderline exhausted. Maybe even completely spent. Recognize when you’re overextended, and find a way to pause. Remember to reset and recharge – it needs to happen more than once a term. I am a ball of energy, I’m naturally high strung, and it takes an army of close friends and mentors to keep my work and my personal life in balance and in check.

All that being said . . . the introspection and reflection will come in twelve months. Just a few weeks ago, I probably would not have been able to write these same speech. As a close friend of mine always says about graduate study, it’s all about process.

By the end of the program, you’ll look back to everything you’ve accomplished; that moment of achievement and recognition will be yours to savour. Good luck!

Best of luck, MPC Class of 2016! 


Photo by Steven Depolo via Flickr