The Path Less Travelled: How Working in a Remote Cree Community Gave Me The Confidence to Pursue an Unconventional Career / by Jennifer Chan

 

Picture this.

It’s the summer of 2011. I was finishing up my last two courses at McGill University.  Everyone was leaving their separate ways – my closest friends heading back to Europe or the United States, where they were from.

I had no idea what I was going to do after I graduated. I had no connections, no real job prospects, and no idea how I was going to get my foot through the door of any industry. I had just turned 21 years old and the only work experience on my resumes were minimum wage positions in retail, grocery stores and coffee shops.

While it seemed that most of my peers from university were heading off to work an entry-level position in finance, politics or some other impressive industry through personal connections, I felt like I had nothing. Why couldn’t I be a daughter of a diplomat?

I started searching for non-profit organizations on the internet and I came across one that I had never heard before. The organization’s mission was to target certain schools in Quebec who had high drop-out rates and implement projects in various fields to encourage student engagement. After looking at all the various positions, I applied for one that focused on academic engagement. There was just one catch: the school was in a remote Cree town about a 9 hour (non-stop) drive north from Montreal.

I was elated when I found out I landed the job. My friends, family and then-girlfriend all thought I was crazy for accepting the position.  But it was the first time that I would be earning more than minimum wage, and my compensation package even included a northern allowance, room and board, and a discretionary expense account to fund whatever projects I wanted to implement. I never had so much responsibility before. But it meant that I would be away from “civilization” for five months – not just in another city or province, but in a remote Cree community in northern Quebec. It sounded like an unforgettable adventure, but I would be lying if I said I never thought about backing out.

As the van drove me and two other young twenty-somethings (who would also be working in the same community) to our new home, a hundred questions raced through my mind. What did I get myself into? Am I even qualified for this job? Will the high school students respect me? Will I make meaningful connections with anyone? Will this job impress law school admissions committees?

It was too late to back out now.

The following 5 months were a whirlwind. I started an after-school tutoring program and the school's first student-run newspaper. I played soccer with some of the students. Faculty invited me to their get-togethers. I helped organize Annual Addiction Awareness week. The community embraced me with open arms, despite that I was an outsider.

I began to see a different side to myself - a side I didn't even know existed. As a hardcore city girl, I thought I would die living in a small town. There was one restaurant, grocery store, gas station, and a few general stores. The closest Tim Hortons was 2 hours away. I also didn’t have internet for an entire month (or cable the entire time I was there), and I would have to walk 20 minutes to the town’s lodge to use their internet so I could e-mail my family, Skype with my girlfriend and submit my law school application. But despite all that, I was never bored nor felt deprived. 

I was completely out of my comfort zone, and yet it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Three months after I returned to the “south” (aka Toronto), I received a letter stating that I was accepted to the law school of my first choice. Everything had come together exactly as I wanted, on my own terms. I cried. I laughed. I thanked the big G upstairs.

Once I received my acceptance, it suddenly dawned on me that it didn’t matter whether I had a bunch of pretentious job titles on my resume – there was plenty of different ways to demonstrate the skills that the admissions committee thought were necessary to become a successful lawyer. In other words, there's no "right" way to get where you want to go. So, why bother trying to replicate what everyone else does? 

Why I'm sharing this story

I really believe that you don't need to sacrifice your beliefs or interests, or work a dead-end job just to reach your end goal, so long as you have the prerequisite skills.

The fastest way to accumulate practical skills is to take on as many new projects and experiences as possible. In my situation, working in a school in the middle of nowhere may not seem that it would be adequate preparation to study law (and become a competent lawyer). But, I demonstrated to the admissions committee how relevant, and useful, that position actually was. I moved away from the technical aspects of the job - planning and executing programs - and focused on all the skills that I learned: leadership, self-initiative, resourcefulness and, most importantly, an ability to communicate with people from a wide range of backgrounds. A lawyer's hard skills - interpreting and applying legislation to real life problems - can be taught. The soft skills can't.

All the unique job positions that are on my resume haven't hurt my career. It's defined my career. And so far, they have provided me with a comfortable standard of living.

It may not result in your dream salary.

It may not result in a linear career path.

But you will get paid to do work that aligns with your aspirations, beliefs, and values.

At the end of the day, my advice may not work for everyone.  I understand that we all have to pay our bills, keep a roof over our heads, and put food on the table. Sometimes that requires taking jobs that we aren’t particularly enthusiastic about. But if you have the privilege to explore your interests, even on the side while you’re working a full-time job – I think you're doing yourself a disservice by negating these experiences. Because you'll never know where the next opportunity will come knocking. And who knows, you might just start getting paid for doing things that you've been doing as a hobby on the side. But no one will force you to do this - you have to do it for yourself. So be weird, try new things, and see what happens when you pursue experiences that genuinely excite you.