School of Cities hosts first professional development day for U of T students

April 17, 2019 by Nina Haikara

On April 11, University of Toronto students from across a range of disciplines took part in a day of professional development and career exploration at the School of Cities’ Urban Career Expo: Talent and Career Fair, held in collaboration with Innis College’s Urban Studies program, the Centre for Community Partnerships, and Career Exploration and Education. 

Prof. Marieme Lo

“It’s an opportunity for students to learn from and connect with city-builders, community champions and leading professionals across a range of urban-focused fields in the private, public and non-profit sectors,” said Marieme Lo (photo left) an associate professor and associate director of education for the School of Cities and convener of the event.

“We have a very talented group of students at U of T who are not only interested in impactful careers within their own discipline, but motivated by the shared ethos of doing good. Having speakers like you help them map possibilities and widen their horizons beyond their siloed fields and imagine hopeful and impactful futures," she said during her introductory remarks.

School of Cities Manager, Ben Liu, moderated a public sector panel, including Michael Genova, director, corporate and strategic communications for the City of Vaughan, Ümit Kiziltan, director general, research and evaluation for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and Kristin Olsen, manager, transportation policy at Metrolinx. 

Kiziltan said he was pleasantly surprised when he ended up working in public service, having always been at the other end of the table negotiating with federal public servants. 

“Some real-world issues don’t have a formal answer, whether it’s climate change, or the integration of refugees, so it takes a wide range of competencies to come together to tackle an issue,” he said. “It’s not just about becoming an expert in one technique, but having a view of the global world.”

For students interested in transportation planning, Olsen maintained there are a number of ways for students to get into the field, whether civil engineering, planning, or through non-profit experience, or work as a community organizer. 

“Think about how your skills and experience might be applied. It will have value at some point in your career,” she said. 

Public sector panel at the School of Cities urban career expo
Photo left to right: Michael Genova, Ümit Kiziltan, Kristin Olsen and School of Cities manager Ben Liu (moderator) discuss their roles and the skills to succeed during the public sector panel (photo Diana Tyszko). 

Genova previously worked as a political advisor before joining municipal service. He reflected on his ten years of communications, intergovernmental relations and public policy experience, underlining for students that their education should never end, whether they are enrolled in further studies, or reading books on a variety of topics. 

“Communications is the most important thing you can master. How to position, persuade, and convince your colleagues to work collaboratively with you,” he said.  

Community champions panel members at the School of Cities urban career expo
Community champions (photo left to right): Jehad Aliweiwi, Sabina Ali and Marissa Campbell (photo Diana Tyszko).

The “community champions” panel moderated by Professor Marieme Lo welcomed Sabina Ali, chair, of the Thorncliffe Park women’s committee, Jehad Aliweiwi, executive director of the Laidlaw Foundation, and Marissa Campbell, program coordinator for Canadian Roots Exchange.

As one of the founding members, Ali has been at the forefront of a grassroots organization that has revitalized Thorncliffe Park public space and provided social and economic opportunities for residents within its community market. Ali says it all began because the local park wasn’t being cared for. 

“There were challenges when I got involved in the community and wanted to animate the public space and the local community market. But we were lucky in 2010 – the city was on strike – and so we just experimented,” she said. “The next year, we had to get the permits and insurance to continue doing what we were doing,” adding the door has been opened for other community groups.

“Animating the park, revitalizing the park – I have seen how it has grown over the years, and its positive civic impact.”

Campbell identifies as mixed ancestry from European settlers, Qalipu-Mi’kmaq First Nations and Cree, and was born and raised in Toronto, Dish with one Spoon territory. She attended U of T and was an active volunteer and student activist, who worked in gender violence and in peer counselling. 

Today she works with Canadian youth at the centre of conversations and actions on decolonization and reconciliation as a program coordinator for the Ottawa and Thunder Bay teams of Canadian Roots Exchange. She spoke to students about pursuing their passions, but also the pitfalls. 

“Social sector is also not a trend,” said Campbell. “This is my life.” 

“One of the major problems in this field is burnout. You’ll find a lot of passionate people, working on very personal issues, that have consequences in the communities in which they work. There is always more to be done. You can only give what you can give.”

Aliweiwi, executive director of the Laidlaw Foundation, focused on civic action, public policy and investing in youth, said there’s a need for more highly-skilled community champions. 

“In the past, the social sector has attracted do-gooders to a cause,” said Aliweiwi. “But I think the sector has to be viewed very differently – complex structures, issues, challenges. It has the opportunities to provide you with career opportunities that are inspiring.”

Private sector career panel at the School of Cities urban career expo 
Private sector career panel (photo left to right): Dave Telka, Pooja Viswanathan, Michael Sutherland and Mary-Margaret McMahon (photo Diana Tyszko).

“Never say never,” said Mary-Margaret McMahon of her election to city council in 2010. Today she’s the director of community for Sidewalk Labs. 

She was joined by Michael Sutherland, director urban solutions, Hatch, Dave Telka, managing director, Canada health and public sector, cities and digital lead at Accenture, and Pooja Viswanathan, CEO and co-founder of startup Braze Mobility, and moderator, Shauna Brail, an associate professor and associate director of partnerships and outreach for the School of Cities. 

Viswanathan in particular grew frustrated that her graduate research project – and autonomous wheelchair – was not a commercial product. To get it out into the real-world, she founded Braze Mobility. Her advice? Always be inquisitive.

Far from a startup, Hatch is a global engineering, project and construction and business consulting firm to multiple natural resource and infrastructure areas. 

“Great companies are great because they have to be committed to their brand equity, and doing the right thing,” said Sutherland. “Public sector experience is invaluable, but the private sector has the business acumen to bring projects together.”

Telka added that Accenture is currently working with 100 communities and cities around the world. Among their local projects is running the Presto card program for Metrolinx.  

Known within his company as “digital Dave”, the psychology graduate says to network, be bold, and don’t take no for an answer.

“I think you need in your career a target of what you want to achieve – but realize there are many steps to get there. Ideal jobs are not always there on day one.” 

Jay Pitter

Jay Pitter, MES, author and placemaker (photo Diana Tyszko)

To kick-off the afternoon’s cross-sectoral networking opportunity, Jay Pitter, an international placemaker and author whose practice mitigates growing divides in urban centres, gave opening remarks, underscoring the importance of relationship building. 

“Networking evokes a certain kind of transactional process best suited for charming extroverts. Although I’m an extrovert, I’m not very charming. As I continue to grow my practice, I place emphasis on relationship building,” said Pitter.

“Relationship building creates more space for authenticity, curiosity, reciprocity, and most importantly, values alignment. An opportunity isn’t actually an opportunity in the absence of shared values, mutual respect, and laughter.”

To close out the session, Abeir Liton a member School’s student academy, which fosters student academic and social engagement and leadership in city-building and urban scholarship, added to the day's final remarks. 

“On behalf the students, staff and faculty at U of T and the School of Cities, we want to thank all of today’s speakers for taking time out of their busy schedules to speak to us,” said Liton, a second-year undergraduate studying political science and human geography.

“Speaking with the students here, I think we’ve learned a lot and gained a lot of inspiration.”