Within a year of arriving in Canada from China as an international student, fourth-year arts student Crystal Ren secured a work experience position with a major oil & gas company — all thanks to the Arts Work Experience (AWE) program.
The Arts Work Experience program gives Arts undergraduate students the opportunity to further develop the skills learned in the classroom with a full-time, paid work experience position. Positions start in September, January, or May of each year and can be four, eight, 12 or 16 months long. Students registered in the AWE Program also have access to a number of career education sessions through CAPS: Your U of A Career Centre.
Ren’s interest in different cultural and learning experiences is what motivated her to come to UAlberta. That interest is also reflected in her studies, which have run the gamut from computer science to industrial design. Ren is currently majoring in economics (minoring in psychology) and she credits the AWE program for helping her realize she was on the right path; the opportunity to gain real-life business experience reinforced her interest in economics.
Starting in the fall of 2012, Ren spent eight months working as a Business Analyst at ZCL Composites, the biggest manufacturer of fiberglass reinforced tanks in North America. She was responsible for exploring other potential markets for the company’s products and investigating the feasibility of getting products into those new markets.
Although she was a work experience student, Ren reported directly to Ron Bachmeier, the CEO of ZCL Composite. Working so closely with the CEO of a multinational company could be daunting for any undergrad student, but Ren flourished under Bachmeier’s mentorship and learned that inclusivity and hard work are important in any work environment. “The more I worked, the more I learned,” says Ren.
Ren also received additional mentorship and gained new skills simply by talking to coworkers in other departments. “You just need to reach out to different people so that you can learn more and more things. If you don’t go out and ask questions, no one is going to help you. You have to be proactive, as much as possible,” says Ren. The new skills she acquired, as well as her appetite for learning, helped earn Ren a part-time job with the company over the summer.
Ren acknowledges that AWE helped her get her foot in the workplace door and she recommends it to Arts students as a platform to step into the work environment. In addition, AWE provides students with skills they can apply to their studies. “It’s a fantastic experience for you to learn about things in the workplace. Then when you get back to school, you know what you really want to do because you have this work experience…. You also know more about what knowledge you need to learn to do better later and you know how to improve.”
“Life is full of possibilities, but you need to have somewhere to start. AWE gives you a really good start,” she adds.
Ren notes that the AWE program and the services provided through CAPS are especially valuable to international students. For example, the process of applying for jobs in China and expectations for interviews are quite different. However, the coordinators provided Ren with career consultations, suggestions on how to write a proper resumé and cover letter, as well as interview tips — valuable career information that she otherwise wouldn’t have known.
Ren believes that the passion exhibited by Arts students is a valuable contribution to any industry: “I talk to a lot of employers and they always say that it doesn’t matter what kind of skill you have, they can teach you later on. But they want to see the passion; they want to see that you’re driven…. I think it’s something employers look for and the whole world is looking for. Because the world is driven by ideas and [Arts students] have this drive to create ideas.
“You don’t need to be restricted by what your major or your degree is. You have to think about what you learn and how the knowledge you learn can be used. Knowledge and the thinking process are more important.”
Arts Work Experience program
Photo: Crystal Ren (L) with Ron Bachmeier (R), the CEO of ZCL Composites Inc.