Shalini went back to school to build bridges to a new career

This story is a little different.  It is more about the human push for connection and how money can enable it.  Shalini is a passionate, driven and highly educated woman from Toronto. 

Originally growing up in Montreal in an upper middle class family with two sisters and a father who owned his own business, Shalini saw every day that you had to hustle for money if you wanted it.  She went to her father’s factory to help and overheard her mother’s business conversations.  As such she was very aware of how money was made – the engagement with others, the need to understand their wants, the process of negotiating, making commitments and then delivering on those. 

With this awareness and the financial support of her parents for schooling, she navigated her way through higher education, completing private college in Montreal, a certificate in management, and a BA in English.  Shalini then pursued a BEd programme with a focus on urban diversity in Vancouver, BC.  This added to her costs but she was able to reduce the burden by living with her sister and sharing the rent.  Her intellectual, volunteer and part time employment gave her a sense of connection to others and Shalini enjoyed her 20’s without making money a core factor in her decision-making. 

At the end of her 20’s, Shalini maneuvered towards a career in education, driven by the potential to have an impact, continuously learn, raise social consciousness, address the larger questions of life, be mobile and travel within her career.  She moved to Toronto to go pursue her Masters in Education in 2003.  She was starting off with close to $12,000 in debt and ended her graduate degree owing $25,000.

Shalini worked as substitute teacher part-time for the TDSB while completing her masters and secured full time employment with the board in 2005.  As someone who leaned towards spending, Shalini enjoyed the next few years with a stable income and the building up of her savings and teacher’s pension contributions.  She worked to pay down her debt and enjoy life, treating family and friends whenever possible.  During this period she was able to save $20,000, not nearly enough she says.

In 2011, after 8 years teaching and acting as a social justice advocate, nominated for a number of internal and external awards, Shalini was looking for something more entrepreneurial in nature as well as the opportunity to travel. She took an unpaid leave of absence to teach at international schools in the UK and then Bangladesh.  She was able to save an additional $20,000 during this period and continued to grow her skills with new work planning and developing curriculum for a new middle school.

With the death of her father, Shalini returned to Toronto after 2 years abroad.  She once again started educating but after two months realized that she had completely outgrown public school teaching and wanted to explore other options.  Despite the stability, security of her job, and defined benefit pension plan, she felt compelled to find something that enabled her to be more entrepreneurial, work on a wider platform and better connect.   She was also burnt out by the work and just could not imagine herself teaching every day for the rest of her career.

Knowing that something is missing, but not knowing exactly what that was, Shalini entered a 4-year period of heavy exploration.  Shalini knew she wanted to continue to engage on critical social issues but wanted to extend to a wider platform, with adults in a cross-sector fashion.  She liked building bridges as an educator and as such enrolled in the MSc Sustainable Development with a focus on climate change.

During this period she hustled to sustain herself, using the knowledge she had built from watching her parents.  She supply taught an average of 3 days a week while building bridges including overseas as she was interested in continuing to work abroad.  The cost of her international interest was an expensive one.  She had to pay for travel and some accommodations.   With limited networks and no work visa, Shalni had less opportunities to secure paid for contract work and spent about $10,000 of her savings in 2.5 months. 

Returning to Canada, Shalini continued to pursue her studies in sustainability, pioneered an international student representative system with colleagues, and continued to secure some paid contract work.  Shalini also volunteered with a breadth of organizations in the not for profit sector namely working on sustainability issues.  To enable her to do this, Shalini, once again moved in with her sister and reduced her accommodation costs.  Through this period, Shalini eroded her savings and took on a total debt of $5,000.

Shalini is not stressed about retirement because she has a strong belief in her capacity to earn and "pull it together".  She also expects to work a few more decades and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan she has earned would amount to $600 a month.  This is obviously not sufficient for a comfortable retirement but it is at least a good start. 

Shalini is now starting in on a focused period with clearer goals.  She is fixed on a career that will give her the opportunity to engage in cross sector work that enables her to lead social and political action.  Shalini has identified that the best way to her goals, given a breadth of work-study options and a deep network, is via the pursuit of a MA in Educational Technology.  This full time program will give her the foundation to use her skills in a manner that provides greater meaning for her.

Shalini will rely on provincial loans and bursaries, substitute teaching, university work opportunities and other career related contracts to complete her studies.  She will then work on finally settling down and building a “home to call her own – a place for her books, dresses and self to rest”.  Ultimately she is hoping this will bring her the connection she desires, enable her to leave a legacy and make her family proud.

Listening to Shalini and understanding her journey provided three great insights:

  1. Success in the area of finances has much more to do with the focus on money and the degree to which it is important to a person than the intellect, drive, or strategic approach of an individual.

    • Shalini is very much driven by finding a way to use her time and skills to advance social causes that resonate with her. As this has been her focus, she has grown and succeeded in this area. She has not been driven by money and so she has not dedicated energies to saving for retirement or buying a house.

    • This brings to light a great opportunity. Even if money is not a driver, it is important to think about its role and the access or benefits it can provide in enabling personal drivers. Money has certainly helped Shalini engage in intellectual pursuits and enjoy life.

    • Figuring out ways to keep a focus on money and setting specific financial goals will be key to her success both in finances an in her career. Quantifying what she will need financially, the value of her pension well as what she needs to save on a monthly basis to get to her goals will help her get a home of her own and a comfortable retirement.

  2. Exploratory work is critically needed but very time consuming. Transitioning industries, shifting roles, finding new employment, launching a new career are all significant efforts that require a deep understanding of individual skill sets, knowledge of specific opportunity areas where they can be valuable and a heavy investment in relationship building and skill demonstration to make the transition.

We should not avoid this work. Individuals critically need to engage and we as a society need this work to be completed.  It is what leads to new success pathways. 

Instead, we need to figure out how to create mechanisms to make these investments accessible.  From an individual perspective, there are opportunities to invest in this work while pursuing paid employment – this is how transitions are often accomplished.  Netowrking lunches, coffees, scouring glassdoor for an understanding of salaries and linkedin for an understanding of career pathways.  We can also bound our exploratory work by establishing criteria of what we are looking for and ensuring we are focused. 

Shalni spent $10,000 of her savings because her exploration involved both new fields and new geographies.  She had been successful at transitioning internationally within her existing field but it proved more costly to transition both into a new field and new geography. 

This will only work for those individuals who are not struggling to make ends meet or have enough time to invest.  From a community perspective, how do we create mechanisms for all Canadians to invest in exploration and build bridges towards meaningful employment with fair living wages that enable our communities to thrive?

3.  We design roles around tasks and not people.  From a systemic perspective, I can’t help but think that our design of jobs is preventing us from taking advantage of the passion of people.  What would it look like if employees had the ability to use their full intellect, initiative and passions to grow their work and impact?

How much happier would Shalini have been if she could have worked in the classroom half the time and set up regional programs for student activism the rest of the time.  How much would our students and communities have benefited?

How much would we as tax payers have saved by leveraging her skills, making full use of them and not having to train new people into the profession?

How can we design our jobs to earn and make wise use of the enthusiasm, initiative, loyalty and passion of individuals?