Professional Skills Foundations staff profile: Ileana Diaz

Ileana Diaz has joined the Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs team in the Graduate Professional Skills Program Specialist role to support the Professional Skills Foundations program! Join us in getting to know a bit more about Ileana: 

Who are you and what do you do?

Ileana DiazI am a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management at the University of Waterloo. My research is generally located in the areas of critical race, gender, food, and climate change studies, especially in the Caribbean and Canada. I enjoy caring for and learning all about the many adventures of my nieces and nephews. I am also a lover of music in all its forms. Often, in my spare time I find myself searching for new music to listen and dance to.

Describe the kinds of professional development activities you have taken part in (e.g. volunteering, professional skills workshops, student association, GSA).

I have participated in a number of workshops and training offered by the Centre for Career Action, the Writing and Communication Centre, AccessAbility Services, the Center for Teaching Excellence, Campus Wellness, UW Library, and Human Rights, Equity, and Inclusion, all associated with the University of Waterloo. Some of these trainings include Supporting Student Mental Health, Culturally Responsive Teaching, Accessibility Training, and the Exploring Diverse Careers in Academia Program. In addition to this, I am near completion of the Fundamentals of University Teaching Certificate and most recently have completed training through UW focused on coping skills, emotional intelligence, and compassion. I am currently working through the self-paced e-course Confronting Anti-Black Racism.

In addition to this, I have completed other programs off campus and some of these include SafeTalk Suicide Prevention, the Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health’s More Feet on the Ground, and various certificates in Driving Change and Anti-Racism, Supporting Workers with Disabilities, Advocating for Change in Organizations, Developing Self-Awareness, and Defining and Achieving Professional Goals. Moreover, I have also participated in various other trainings at the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the National Centre for Faculty Development and Diversity, and I regularly take harm reduction and naloxone administration training.

Other professional development activities I have committed to across the universities I have attended have been serving on various committees and in various roles such as union steward, student senator, women’s centre volunteer coordinator, project coordinator, and conference organizer. One particular role that brought me a lot of joy for several years was being a MITACS Canada Globalink Mentor where I had the opportunity to spend time mentoring youth from all over the world who were on an educational/work exchange in Canada. In addition to my service at universities, I have volunteered actively in various sectors in Kitchener-Waterloo and the GTA and across not-for-profits, communities, cities, and internationally.

You have been very involved both on and off campus! How have you found out about these activities, and how do you find balance between your academic responsibilities and these activities?

There is a certain amount of work that goes into finding ways to become involved that are a good fit for each individual. A great place to start is at the University of Waterloo. There are many centres at UW which advertise various opportunities, workshops, and training sessions on their websites. In addition to that, sometimes it can be illuminating simply to start an online search for something you are interested in or a cause you care about, along with the community you live in. I find that it is helpful to sign up for various listservs to get an idea for various job, conference and volunteer opportunities that are tailored to fields you are interested in. Starting small and even just signing up to receive newsletters from one association in your discipline can get the ball rolling for you to find out about other groups that you may be interested in.

Grad school is very demanding, and there is always the sense that one could do more, either by attending conferences, service work, publishing, becoming more involved in the community or doing more professional development. I think one of the most important things graduate students can do is take some time to clarify what they really need and want out of graduate school and life in general, and to prioritize activities that will help them to get to where they want to be. After determining what your priorities are, it is important to give yourself permission to say no to things that will add to your workload but will not necessarily contribute to your goals.

It is also always important to understand that sometimes, certain students simply have more struggles and face more institutionalized and systemic barriers, so it is important to recognize that racism, homophobia, ableism and sexism can play a part in informing a student’s experience. In that regard, it is important not to compare yourself to others and to find ways to get the support that you need from your institution (such as mental health services) and people around you who you can trust.

Describe the value of these professional development opportunities and how they have complemented your academic experiences.

There are so many valuable aspects to professional development! Beyond the skills that you learn and apply to your life, professional development allows you to expand your community and engage with your interests in a new way. For me, professional development has helped me to meet people outside of my field, broaden my vision for what I can do in the future and helped me to build resilience and confidence.

Why did you apply to work with the Professional Skills Foundations program?

I applied because I already spend much of my time outside of my studies researching how graduate students can better prepare for a challenging job market and I am always ready to share what I have learned with my peers. As an Afro-Caribbean-Latinx woman, my own experiences navigating academia as the first person in my family to pursue a PhD and as an international student (initially) have made me attentive to the needs of a variety of graduate students. I believe that professional development for graduate students is an often overlooked, but essential component of success, regardless of a student’s career goals. Ultimately, I felt that it was a good position to help support others who may be needing additional insights, resources, and assistance in order to achieve their own goals.

What do you want to do following graduate school?

As I progress closer to the end of my degree, I have seen how important it is to set goals, but also to be flexible and recognize opportunities that can meet my priorities which are not exactly what I set out to do when I began my PhD. I am oriented toward careers where collaboration, using my skills as a researcher, and helping my communities to be more inclusive, vibrant, and livable are central.

Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

I cannot stress enough how important it is to prioritize your own health and wellness! Part of professional development is also about learning to take good care of yourself and respecting your own boundaries about what you are willing and able to do.

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