Sheryl Gray: “Delivering a Healthy Career Change”
“I’d been working as a director of care at a seniors’ residence, and had been on maternity leave. Part way through that mat leave, I discovered that I was expecting again. So I had to go in to work and ask if I could come back from my mat leave, because I needed to work to qualify EI for another mat leave. We set up some part-time hours and I arranged daycare for my child with special needs, got that all pulled together. And the first day of work, went in to the office and was told that I no longer had a job, the position was eliminated.
I was so frozen, so numb, that I didn’t even know what to do. But as much as you think ‘it’s about me,’ you still have a mortgage and these three little mouths to feed, including the one inside me, and you have to get past it. You have to because you just do. It’s survival. And I have to say there was a tiny bit of relief mixed in with the fear and the numbness, because I didn’t really like that job. It had just evolved from other things I had done.
It was about two days later when it occurred to me that it was August and school was going back in. I remembered that I had actually started a career change ten years earlier, deciding to get in to writing and communications. And I’d started working on my writing diploma at Douglas College and had done one year full-time. But I couldn’t afford to do the second year full-time so picked away at it for a while until kids and life got in the way, and never finished it. But that August in 2011, I looked up my old transcripts and realized I only had four courses to complete to get the diploma.
When it all comes down around you and you get knocked on your butt, I could actually look up and see, ‘Wow, this all just aligned.’ It was August, I only had four courses to do and I had a full-time salary until the baby was born, due in January. This is what I wanted, the career change I wanted. So I contacted the program coordinator and was able to complete two of the outstanding courses during the fall term. Alexa my third-born arrived January 16, two weeks in to the winter term. Through a classmate, I found someone who could do the babysitting, right outside the classroom door. The stress of a new baby, another baby with Down syndrome, and a pre-schooler, plus doing the school work and the stress of knowing I didn’t have a job to go to was unbelievable. But it was also exhilarating because I was so excited about the writing and this was the one chance I had, so I kept telling myself, ‘Get it done, get it done, get it done.’
Now, back in August, before I’d even started school, I’d decided if I was going to make it, I had to start right away. So I had a game plan, an end plan. I knew I wanted to work in communications for Fraser Health, mainly because I’d already worked in healthcare and thought I could bring a bit more to the table. But how to get there, from where I am now, to being considered a communications professional working for the health authority?’ So I showed up at an IABC/BC committee meeting for volunteers. And I just kept putting up my hand and saying, ‘I can write, I can write, give me something to write. I’ll write some profiles. Can I write for the website?’ So I started writing profiles for the newsletter.
I quickly realized that IABC was a giant group of professional communicators at all levels of their careers. So I could talk to other entry-level people about ‘how are you doing it,’ yet as a mature person in my mid-40s I could also talk to people already there, having lots in common with them just personally. I’d already had a successful career doing other things and people were actually interested to hear about that. And the more I talked to people, the more I started to feel confident. I never really let up. It wasn’t about finding a job when I got out of school, it was about doing everything I could do before I graduated so there would be a job waiting for me when I got out of school.
In the spring, just before graduation, a friend shared a LinkedIn post saying that the IABC/BC Board needed a volunteer coordinator. I have a college certificate in volunteer coordination, and have actually been a paid volunteer coordinator. So I approached them and mentioned I’d been doing volunteer writing for the past year, and volunteered with people they knew, and was told they would be great references. I submitted my application and was given the position.
Putting myself on the Board of Directors was one of those stand-apart things. Sometimes people join associations thinking they can just put membership on their professional resume. But you can’t just join, you actually have to do something, you’ve got to participate. For me, it was this constant emailing and calling and meeting people at events. And I found myself working alongside and meeting people who had been working in communications a long time, and that I actually liked!
That April, I graduated with no job. I applied for everything and tried as much as possible to just tie in all my experiences to every application. I talked to people constantly, ‘Who do you know, what do you know,’ and finally landed a contract position with PharmaSave’s national office. The job wasn’t an ideal fit, with lots of reports and Excel spreadsheets, but it was such a great foot in the door and it was in healthcare. And it was a solid chunk of experience on my résumé. Most importantly to me, it was the first time I got to be really recognized as a professional communicator. And when a contract job at Fraser Health finally came up, I got interviewed and got the job.”
Some facts about Sheryl
Current position: Independent writer and editor
IABC member since: August 2011
Biggest help in getting established: Surrounding myself with established communicators through IABC volunteer work.