“Communications, to me, is sort of like the Swiss army knife of degrees”. This is, possibly, the most succinct way of putting it that I’ve heard before. On what happened to be the one-year anniversary of his graduation from SFU (“It’s so weird being back up here!”), Jeff Scheffel of Volunteer Burnaby chatted with me about the value of volunteering, the diversity of a not-for-profit job, and the importance of collaboration skills.
At Volunteer Burnaby, Jeff gets his hands dirty by actively engaging with the community just as much as he works behind a desk. As Community Developer, it’s his job to “put Volunteer Burnaby’s feet on the ground”. This not-for-profit connects organizations who need volunteers with people who want to help a cause – Jeff helps to assess and fill organization’s volunteer needs, keep up to date with clients, recruit volunteers, and come up with creative ideas to keep Volunteer Burnaby moving forward.
He’s also one of those lucky souls that happened to have a job waiting for him once he left university; one, in fact, that came from his first (and last) Co-op term. After a summer term at Volunteer Burnaby, Fall rolled around and his supervisor left: Jeff was first on the list to take over, and he finished his studies while working part time for the organization.
K: So what’s the best part of your job as Community Developer?
J: I think the best part is that it’s different every day. It’s not so structured where I have to do this one hour, this the next hour. I have a lot of flexibility with this position. That’s the reason I liked it so much when I first got it as a Co-op position – it wasn’t like a typical entry level positions where, you know, your supervisor tells you everything you do. I come into the office and have the freedom to make my own decisions; I like that flexibility.
K: Did you have any idea you’d find yourself here?
J: When I first started looking for a Co-op, I thought I was going to end up in a big company like Blackberry or Vancouver Canucks or something like that. I applied for a whole bunch of positions and the only one I got accepted to was Volunteer Burnaby. So I was sitting in Liesl’s [the CMNS Co-op Advisor] office, wondering if I should take it, and she said I should absolutely go for it – that working for a not-for profit was going to be one of the most rewarding things I could do. And she was absolutely right. You feel like you’re actually making a substantial difference. Working with all the other not-for-profits that I work with, seeing what all these volunteers are doing to help…it’s huge.
K: I’m looking to start Co-op in the spring, I’m a little scared. How was your first month at your job?
J:I mean, it was challenging, you’re in a completely new environment. I’d never worked in an office before so I didn’t know what that dynamic was like. You come in, you sit down at your desk, and then what? You don’t want to be that person that asks the supervisor what you can do every ten minutes. At my position specifically it was really self-directed. For me, that self-directedness was challenging at first. You’re not used to it, you don’t know what you can do and you almost feel too shy to change too much. So that was a big hurdle to get over at first. My title was so vague when I just started, I was Special Events Coordinator. I’d never managed a special event before. But eventually you get the ball rolling, you go to a couple staff meetings, you get ideas. The first month I honestly just taught myself Photoshop and I made a consistent social media platform for everything – their Facebook feed, Twitter feed, and graphics. I never thought I’d actually learn that stuff but I’m pretty good at it now.
K: Speaking of, what skills has university given you that have helped you the most?
J: A big one is just collaboration skills. Especially with my job, I work with so many different organizations and individuals, each and every day. I sit on different committees where we try and identify gaps in the social structure for Burnaby, and so many different ideas are bought to the table. You have to able to work through those ideas and find the best fit to solve the problem. For example, say there’s a pocket of Burnaby that doesn’t have a daycare centre – how can we address this issue? Or there’s a growing Aboriginal community but not a lot of services to support them – who can come together to help these people? It’s just sort of trying to identity what everyone’s talents are, finding out how those talents can add to the group as a whole. Because when you’re working in a team, it’s parts to a whole – you’re not just an individual. You make compromises, sacrifices, and pitch in whatever you can. At the end of the day you’re going to have something that’s a lot more substantial than if you were trying to solve this problem by yourself.
K: Got any interesting stories or memorable experiences?
J: There was one during the first summer I worked at Volunteer Burnaby underneath the Community Developer at the time. In the summertime we have a lot of special events that we help out with. So I was sitting in on one of the committee meetings for an event – and usually I don’t say a word because I was just an assistant. The talent show coordinator for the event had left this year, and the committee leader was going around the room asking if anyone wanted to run this talent show…and I put up my hand. I didn’t even know what I was thinking or what I was getting into. My supervisor just looks at me and says, ‘Did you actually just volunteer for that?’ And I said, “Yeah, I’m gonna do it”. So I ended up running the talent show that year and I’ve been running it ever since.
K: Here’s a tough question for you: follow your passion or follow your talent?
J: [Pauses] I think they go hand in hand. I think if you pick one the other will follow. So often the things that you’re talented at are the things that you’re passionate about. The people who are good at graphic design are good because they’re sitting at the computer on Illustrator for hours on end…I think, to offer advice to Communication students, ultimately just follow your passion. If you do, you’ll have the fuel behind it that will keep you going.
We’ve heard time and again the value of the Co-op program from our alumni – and while Jeff enthusiastically recommends it, he also reminds us of another pathway to skill achievement that we often forget about: the value of volunteering. Whether it’s coordinating special events, helping new immigrants work through legal documents, or even Jeff’s own position helping out at the rooftop barbeques of a local hostel, giving up your time to contribute to something meaningful can be rewarding both personally and professionally. “It’s not really about the money – it’s more about gaining the experience, developing as a professional, meeting contacts along the way. [I volunteer] because I never know who I’ll meet at these positions. I never know what skill I’ll pick up. And I never know what I’ll love to do next.”
Sometimes, a big source of anxiety for students is feeling like we may not have a lot of skills that will help us professionally in our future field. Jeff has reassured us (and me!) not to worry. What many employers want, he says, is to have faith that you will be self-sufficient, and capable to learn as you go. “When I got hired,” he says, “I had zero practical skills. I had nothing. And now, I wanted to hire people who had nothing, because the experience had added so much value to me and I wanted to give that back.” While you may think that you lack in practical or applied skills, don’t underestimate the other arsenal of talents that your Communications experience will equip you with: critical thinking, becoming an engaged citizen, and learning to open up your mind to the ideas of others. In short, don’t panic. You know how to learn, and that’s an invaluable skill in itself.
-Kasia Cookson, Features Editor