Read on to discover the best-named Facebook group for Waterloo alumni! Thanks to Lauren for sharing that gem, and so very much more. –JLH
JLH: When you were applying to university, which ones did you consider? Why did you finally decide on Waterloo?
LB: I was really eager to move away and live on my own during university, so I immediately discounted any schools in my hometown of Toronto. But I also didn’t want to stray TOO far from my parents and friends, so I considered Western, Queens, McGill and others. In the end, what drew me to Waterloo was the unique Rhetoric & Professional Writing program. I knew I wanted to be a professional writer in some capacity, but the idea of studying English language and literature for four years left me cold. RPW seemed to offer the multi-disciplinary experience I was looking for—not only language and lit, but also critical and rhetorical theory, writing for a variety of disciplines, digital media, linguistics, computer science and more. It was really broad and that’s what attracted me to it.
The fact that RPW also offered an optional co-op component sealed the deal. In my mind, the opportunity to apply and interview for real job placements, to experiment within my field of interest, to put my skills to work in a real office environment—making contacts and earning a salary along the way—that whole concept was incredibly compelling. My first co-op placement was at the head office of Clarica, now part of Sun Life Financial, where I worked as a technical writer. Going to work for a major company every day, attending business meetings and taking on real-world responsibilities was an amazing learning experience and confidence builder.
JLH: Now you’re at Canadian Tire, which as a home owner I find tremendously fascinating. Can you talk a bit about what you do?
LB: Four years ago I discovered a professional field that, as an aspiring writer, I had never previously considered—the field of consumer packaging. Packaging is actually one of the largest industries in the world. Think about it: every product you buy, whether at the supermarket, the drugstore, the big-box store or the corner store, comes in a package. In the retail environment, packaging acts as a silent salesman and a crucial selling tool. And believe it or not, the process behind the development of packaging copy and graphics is incredibly detailed. Right now I work at Canadian Tire’s head office in Toronto, writing packaging copy and coordinating the production of packaging artwork for several thousand products every year, which are sold under Canadian Tire’s private brands, including Mastercraft and Noma. For any aspiring writers out there who are also interested in the fields of marketing and branding, I recommend giving packaging a look. It’s a huge industry.
JLH: What do you think UWaterloo gave you overall?
LB: Waterloo English gave me a solid background in all of the disciplines mentioned earlier; it exposed me to some truly wonderful and memorable professors whose high standards motivated me to excel. Accumulating work experience as a result of co-op was absolutely invaluable. But I have to admit, as a wide-eyed aspiring writer, one of my most treasured experiences at Waterloo was volunteering for the student newspaper, Imprint. There’s a Facebook group called “Imprint Nearly Cost Me My Degree” and it’s so true. I probably spent almost as many hours helping produce the newspaper as I did working on my school assignments. I not only wrote scores of articles in my four years at Waterloo, but I also served as news editor and twice as assistant editor-in-chief. I fondly remember all those Wednesday production nights I spent in Imprint’s office in the Student Life Centre, editing stories, assisting with layout and proofreading, and getting the paper ready to publish by press time. This was a very special kind of education. And via Imprint I got to meet other talented and passionate volunteers, some of whom have gone onto successful careers in journalism. But the best benefit was that, when I graduated, I had a massive portfolio of published works to show potential employers. I largely credit that experience with landing my very first job out of school, as Editorial Assistant for the Toronto Sun.
JLH: You’ve had some really interesting positions—from the Toronto Sun, to writing for a marketing agency, to writing direct-mail catalogues for Columbia House, and now your role at Canadian Tire. What advice would you give a Waterloo English student looking for a job?
LB: Here’s a sobering truth. No matter which post-secondary school you attend, if you graduate with an Honours BA in English and nothing more, landing a job will be a challenge. So how do you get a leg up in the real world? My advice: always, always supplement your English education. Figure out what specific fields you’re interested in and start planning now. If you want to be an editor, get an editing certification. If you’d like to be a technical writer—which, by the way, I think is one of the highest paying jobs you can get as a writer—start taking technical and computer courses now. Learn HTML coding and online publishing systems if you want to work in the online world. Take marketing and branding courses if you’re interested in the highly competitive world of advertising copywriting. Start publishing now if you love journalism. Of course, if you plan on upgrading your BA education with a Masters, all the better. But it’s the real-world, practical skills that employers are looking for. They don’t care that you scored a 95% in your class on Victorian literature. I know from experience what a tough slog it is when you try to build a career on an English undergraduate degree. But if you’re driven and you plan wisely, the sky’s the limit!