Experiential Learning Advisor Joanne Adair Talks The Value Of Networking And Where To Work This Summer

She works to connect students with the right opportunities for hands-on learning. She’s got advice on how to make the most of your summer off and how to get a foot in the door in the professional world (hint: it involves coffee).

I met Joanne when I offered to volunteer at a sustainability conference she was organizing. Joanne Adair is the reason I spent a morning with the president of the World Wildlife Fund, shaking hands with industry professionals, and almost meeting our former PM in person. But that’s another story.

This woman makes things happen at the University of Waterloo. Her formal position is Experiential Learning Advisor, which comes with the responsibility of creating opportunities for students through which they gain hands-on experience in their industry. But you’ll soon learn about it yourself.

I invited Joanne for coffee a few weeks ago, because she’s extremely sharp in everything career-related and I absolutely needed to hear what she had to say. Because my yet-to-secure-an-income summer gives me honest-to-god anxiety.

Dana: Hi Joanne, it’s nice to see you again. Thanks for meeting with me. My first question is, what do you do as an Experiential Learning Advisor?

Joanne: My role at the university is many pieces. The university has a really strong mandate to help people have opportunities to learn in the field, and that’s a priority. Experiential learning is a big deal here, and my role is to be the gateway for students into that. I’ll run various workshops on things like how to read a job description so that you can understand what they’re actually looking for, resumes, networking, understanding career aspirations, and internships. This all comes from my portfolio of skills that I’ve developed from my contract work when I was younger. I always had to be looking for a job in case my contract ended. Another piece is that I bring high-level business people to campus in an event format so they can directly interact with students. For example, I run the SEED Roundtable event. Besides that, I handle marketing and communications, recruitment, and I plan events. It’s a big role.

D: How do you go about bringing high-level business people together with students?

J: There are various ways. One thing that helps is that the University of Waterloo has a strong reputation, and business professionals know that we have a strong co-op base. They know to expect a certain level from students in terms of professionalism and engagement. I also tap into my networks and those of other professors. It’s about knowing who knows who and figuring out who would be a good fit for the events we run. People are pretty receptive, especially if we position it in such a way that they get a good amount of dialogue with students. Professionals like to mentor students. They think coming to campus is energizing.

D: You mentioned you did a lot of contract work. What were you doing to compensate for the instability?

J: I was always putting out resumes and doing informational interviews. At least twice a month I’d meet with someone I didn’t know and take them out for coffee. I’d ask them about their career, how they got where they are, things like that. I wasn’t asking for a job, I was just saying “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, but I’m interested in your role. How’d you get it?”

D: So, how d’you end up at SEED?

J: Nowadays as a young professional, everything is about something taking you to something else. You’re not going to start a job at 21 and stay there forever, the environment is different. I landed a job at the World Wildlife Fund and I spent three years doing community outreach and engagement, then I had an opportunity to join Evergreen when my boss moved over there. Those two experiences were the majority of my career before I started at SEED.

My contract at Evergreen had ended and I was unemployed for about eight weeks, and I knew it was coming because they told me in advance they wouldn’t renew my contract. This sort of fell into my lap and everything worked out. I think this is common interns of people’s careers. Some people like engineers know they’ll always be engineers, but the environment field is so diverse. You can start somewhere and completely shift depending on what jobs are available and what opportunities you want to take.

D: What do you recommend for students who don’t have co-op opportunities this summer?

J: What students do this summer really depends on their needs. If you need good money quick, and you can’t get into a company, be a server. Work in a factory. It’s good fast cash, even if it’s not a career trajectory. These sorts of jobs – at McDonalds, Tim Hortons – they’re so valuable. If anyone has worked in a busy restaurant, and someone can’t make their shift, talk about a person who can handle a crazy, confusing mess of a situation. So I would say any job is a good job because every experience teaches you something. If you’re social, and you don’t mind putting yourself out there, I would look at companies you want to work for and approach them. What I did is cold call managers and say “I saw the article you wrote recently, it was so inspiring. I would love to work for you. Do you want to meet for coffee and discuss what you’re looking for?” Worst case scenario is they say no. But they could end up loving how proactive you are and saying “yeah, we’ll keep you in mind when we do our hiring.” The biggest thing to realize is that that you’ve developed a lot of skills from your high school jobs, or that play you produced in grade twelve. There’s a lot of experience you can draw from your existing roles, whatever they are.

Coffee: the best networking tool for students.

Coffee: the best networking tool for students.

D: What do employers look for when hiring students?

J: From my experience, the big thing they look for is fit. They want to know, how well do you fit in with our organization? If you’re good, open-minded, eager and productive you can learn a lot. If you’re open to taking on more than you can handle, that’s the sort of thing that really impresses people. This is getting into detail, but when you’re writing your cover letter, mimic the company’s style. Whenever I wrote job applications, I’d customize each one. I’d have basic components, of course, but for example if it was a high tech company that was really quirky, I’d give my cover letter a creative format. And they start to think “hey, you’re already like us.” It’s sneaky, but you’re trying to show them you’re the lowest risk to take on. It’s how you show that you’re trustworthy.

There you have it, folks. One coffee down, ninety nine more to go. I hope you learned something. And to Joanne, thank you for the conversation.

[Ed Note: I interviewed Joanne before the idea for 100 Cups of Coffee was born. She inspired it when she told me that she used to take people she didn’t know out for coffee and ask them about their professional lives. It made me realize that coffee isn’t just a chemical stimulant, it’s a social one, too.]

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