Diversifying your work experience through co-op

Vanessa Vanpopic (she/her) is in her fifth year of Honours Arts and Business majoring in Legal Studies. Completing five work terms in four different positions across three companies, Vanessa shares the value of diversifying your work experiences.

Vanessa's co-op journey:

Work terms one and two: Vanessa’s co-op experience kicked off at Toyota, where she worked as a human resources policy development and performance management analyst. This role allowed her to step into the world of managing and manufacturing, where she supported the performance of thousands of employees, drafted and reviewed company policies and completed two process improvement projects.

Work term three: For her third term, Vanessa transitioned to a role at TSERGAS Human Capital as a human resources coordinator. It was here where she performed HR tasks for clients including recruitment, performance management, contracts, policy and documentation, organizational review, employee training and development, as well as answering any HR related questions.

Work term four: For term number four, Vanessa moved to Definity and accepted the role of corporate services administrative assistant. This move provided her with the task of supporting the management of the national corporation fleet, business travel and cafeteria service programs.

Work term five: For her latest term, and sticking with Definity, Vanessa moved to the role of enterprise change enablement co-op. This position has given her the chance to help support the planning, delivery and integration of projects through the corporation, focusing on change management.

Vanessa sitting at a desk on her computer.Who is your employer?

I’m currently working at Definity Financial Corporation. I started at Definity in Corporate Services as an administrative assistant. I’ve since moved into HR as part of the Enterprise Change Enablement Team. At the time of writing, I’m transitioning to a part-time talent acquisition coordinator position while I finish my last year of classes at UW!

Headshot of Vanessa smiling.How did experiencing roles in different industries impact your co-op experience?

During co-op, I’ve worked in manufacturing, consulting and financial services. There were many differences I've experienced between industries and companies including - the culture, terminology, regulations and best practices. While venturing into new waters brought uncertainty, it was an amazing way to grow through challenging myself and diversifying my experiences.

In each role, I needed to take my knowledge, integrate it with new information and be able to apply it in a new context. I had to be flexible and learn new processes, build relationships and establish trust in short periods of time. I also learned more about what’s out there and got exposed to some careers I hadn’t previously considered (like insurance!). I learned about what type of work is the best fit for my skills and values.

I strongly believe that early in your career is the best time to have these diverse experiences, build your scope of knowledge and learn about yourself! The wider your scope, the more relevant and marketable your experiences are to your next options.

Group photo of Vanessa and fellow co-op students.How influential is the culture of a workplace to a co-op student?

Huge. The best way to truly learn and understand a company’s culture is to be a part of it.

Experiential learning, like the University of Waterloo’s co-op program, grants students this opportunity in a low-risk way. Students are often junior in their careers with little to no full-time professional working experience. Co-op positions are often their first introductions to an industry, type of work, company culture, and even working in general.

These early learning experiences make a lasting impact and play a key role in those early career decisions. To a co-op student, company culture can make or break a student’s decision to return to the company, industry or position.

My current workplace, Definity, is a shining example of outstanding company culture. Across the board I’ve experienced trust and respect from leadership, an emphasis on relationship building, learning and development opportunities, promotion of work/life balance, and community and environmental investment. Experiencing company culture across different workplaces and industries has helped me learn more about what I value at work and things to consider as I advance in my career.

What skills did you learn from your co-op experiences that you feel you could bring to a future employer?

There have been so many skills that I've picked up! I’ll list a few of the big ones:

  • Communication and Collaboration: Knowing how to communicate and work with others effectively at different levels and in different contexts across hybrid teams.
  • Critical Thinking: Being able to resourcefully collect, analyze and synthesize information and to see the big picture when problem solving.
  • Time management, Prioritization and Organization: Being dependable and able to get things done! Coming prepared to meetings. Knowing when to follow up.
  • Flexibility: The ability to pivot and adapt to changing tasks and timelines.
  • HR Specific Skills: Knowledge and experience around things like human resources technology, policies, recruitment, performance management, training, onboarding, contracts, legislation, separations and more. These might seem like common skills, but truly I’ve used and strengthened them in every position I’ve held over the years. People skills (AKA soft skills) are important. I’m confident I’ll continue to build and use these skills throughout my career.

Vanessa with another co-worker from Definity.What moments within your journey have been among your proudest?

There are two things that stand out - making an impact and building meaningful relationships.

From my first co-op term to my last, I’ve never felt like “just the intern” and I’ve always been presented with opportunities to take the lead and make meaningful contributions.

Some memorable moments include presenting term improvement projects to a room full of executives, supporting with annual reporting, managing high-volume requests within a tight timeframe and planning and attending a successful company event.

I also value the relationships I’ve built through co-op. I’ve really gotten to know the people I work with, their lives, careers and families. I value those positive working relationships. They made me look forward to going into work and connecting and collaborating with others. I’m proud that I brought my best every single day and got to see how my effort compounded over time. Those little things make a difference.

Vanessa in front of the Waterloo sign.What’s next for you on this journey?

I’m excited to jump into work and continue to build my portfolio of skills and experiences. Later down the road, I see myself applying and enhancing that knowledge through further education, such as a Master’s program or specialty certificate that will compliment my career.

At this stage, I can’t be certain where I’ll land, but I’m confident I’m headed in the right direction with the right attitude!

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