Backpack to Briefcase industry night lets A&S students pick the minds of top alumni in government, public policy and non-profits

November 29, 2022 by Coby Zucker - A&S News

Arts & Science students and recent alumni gained career advice — including the value of networking and volunteering — from seasoned alumni at a Backpack to Briefcase (b2B) industry night in mid-November.

Held in the Debate Room at Hart House, the event offered participants the opportunity to mingle and discuss how best to make the transition from undergraduate to a career in government, public policy or non-profits.

For many, the highlight of the night was a keynote address from Raja Abdo, a policy analyst with the Government of Canada and a recent recipient of an Arbor Award, the highest honour awarded to U of T volunteers. Abdo spoke about the importance of sharing career goals, aspirations and, importantly, your resume with people you cross paths with.

Two attendees to the standing next to Matthew Oh (right) is a policy advisor with the Government of Ontario.
Matthew Oh (right) is a policy advisor with the Government of Ontario.

“I did some volunteer work. I networked. I was shameless. I was awkward and it didn’t work most of the time,” Abdo told students at the event. He earned his honours bachelor of arts in political science and ethics, society and law in 2016 as a member of St. Michael’s College. “And then, way down the line, it worked. Turns out, it was someone I gave my resume to nearly a year before I got that call for an interview. Today, the same could happen to you.”

Abdo, who says there is more flexibility than ever in finding a path to meaningful employment, advises students to seek opportunities, even when they don’t feel their credentials match the opportunity or they’re feeling disheartened by obstacles and challenges.

“No matter what stage of your academic or professional career you are currently in, I think being proactive, applying to jobs and organizations you care about and nurturing those connections is really, really important,” he says. “You never know what will happen down the line.”

Abdo’s advice resonated with students that felt as though their path to a similar career in public policy was filled with insurmountable roadblocks.

“It was actually very relatable to what I’m going through because I don’t know French, I have a disability and he was talking about how you can still do something even if you may not have all the requirements,” Talha Hasnat, a second-year student and member of University College, says.

“Once I graduate, I want to go to Ottawa and work with the government. This opportunity right now might help me bridge that gap in my future career.”

Abdo was just one of a group of alumni that generously volunteered their time to speak with A&S students. Jana Chu, an executive officer of the Office of the Chief Coroner at the Ministry of the Solicitor General, continues mentoring so she can meet new students and give back to the U of T community.

“I spent five years studying at U of T and learned a lot of valuable knowledge and skills. I want to give back in a meaningful way.” Chu says.

Matthew Oh, a policy advisor with the Government of Ontario, says he was impressed by the level of preparation exhibited by those in attendance.

“The event has been fantastic. The students are very motivated, very passionate. As soon as I walked in the door, at least seven students came up and started asking questions,” Oh says.

One attendee standing to the left and Jana Chu (right) is an executive officer of the Office of the Chief Coroner at the Ministry of the Solicitor General.
Jana Chu (right) is an executive officer of the Office of the Chief Coroner at the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

The b2B event was also an opportunity for alumni like Chu and Oh to reminisce about their own time at the University.

“My fondest memories are probably my times at Cumberland House,” Chu says. “I really enjoyed working there and surrounding myself with students from around the world. It was an incredible experience and learning opportunity.”

“One thing that really inspires me to come back is the amount of support other alumni gave me when I was a student,” Oh says. “So contributing to that cause — that empathy toward students and their success — really inspires me and drives me to come back to more of these events.”

Ultimately, the b2B night was about setting students and recent grads on a path toward a fulfilling career.

“I'm an upper year now, so I'm trying to get to know more people and make connections and see what kinds of jobs are out there that I might not be aware of,” Reem Baghdady, a third-year political science and psychology major and member of St. Michael’s College, says.

Daanish Bhatti, a fourth-year political science specialist and member of Innis College, was encouraged to hear his skills in writing would be applicable in future careers. 

“As a political science student, writing is a major part of the way we're assessed and so it's nice to know the work that we're doing is applicable to government industry and wherever you land,” he says.

Bhatti’s main motivation to attend the event was learning more about government job opportunities.

“I just wanted to learn more, talk to people who are working in various fields and get a better understanding of where opportunities are,” Bhatti says. “And people here seem to be really encouraging and willing to offer advice.”