Plans Change, Opportunities Arise: Kerstin’s StarTech.com Story

Facilitated by Devin Gordon, WorkStory Ambassador at Western University

My name is Kerstin Newman and I am 27 years old. I am German and spent the first 22 years of my life in Germany. Growing up, I always wanted a job where I could help people…in what way, I didn’t really care at the time. I used to envy people who knew exactly what they wanted to become and what they had to do to get there as I never had any specific plans. I was never confident in my abilities and didn’t know what career I wanted to pursue. I just knew I wanted to work with people my age or kids. So after graduating high school, I went to university to study German and English in the teaching program for German high schools (Grades 5-12).

During those university years, I went on an exchange and spent a year at the University of Waterloo, in Canada, where I completed my Master’s degree in German Studies. While everybody thought it was kind of strange that I left Germany to do an M.A. in German Studies in an English speaking country, I loved the experience of living in a different country, speaking English on a regular basis, but still studying German on the same level I would have back home.

I went back to Germany for 2 years after the exchange and completed my teaching degree at the University of Mannheim.  I knew at the time that I wanted to come back to Canada, especially since I had met my now husband (he is Canadian) in the German program at Waterloo. I knew the teaching job situation in Ontario was not great.  Also, the schools would not recognize my German teaching degree but would make me go back to teacher’s college, so I decided to switch careers while I was still in Germany. I did an internship at a John Deere facility in Mannheim, in the HR department for training and development. While the job was challenging at times (I had not really worked in office environments before), I loved what I did there, being exposed to people from all over the world, working with different people on different projects, being creative in scheduling, training or making materials available for people. My boss at the time was very supportive and connected me with the John Deere office in Brantford, Ontario, to see if they potentially had room for me. Since the office deals with all the finances, this didn’t work out, but the support of my boss encouraged me to pursue a career where I could do similar things to what I did at John Deere.

I decided to go to Fanshawe College for International Business Management to have better chances of finding a job with an international business. The program was only 8 months long and a post-graduate degree. While I was still a student at Fanshawe, they held a job fair in February and I talked to some people that represented businesses in London. One of the people I talked to ended up hiring me as a bilingual customer service advisor for StarTech.com after my graduation in April 2014. I started working in July 2014 and after completing the job training, I answered phones, chats, and emails for German and English speaking customers.

While customer service was never on my radar, I actually really enjoyed working with the team to help customers, talking to tons of different people all day, and learning new things every day. In April 2015, I was promoted to the role of team lead, meaning that I now am part of the leadership team for the customer service department. While I still talk to customers occasionally, I am now more involved in the operational reports, coaching people, and several projects designed to improve systems and processes.

My typical day is hard to describe as there are never two days that are the same. My main responsibility is to do some reporting on the teams’ performance the previous day in the morning, and then just be available for whatever questions the customer service advisors may have throughout the day. These might be process related, content questions, or system related, so most of the time, I function as a subject matter expert on anything regarding customer service. I approve one-off exceptions we might make for customers, I help advisors help customers in the best way possible, I try to help advisors succeed in their roles, and I am a point of contact for other departments that might have questions about customer service.

I love that every day is different. I love working with the people on the team.  I love being able to help people (the advisors and other departments within the company, and customers that buy our products). I love the challenges I encounter every day (figuring out an Excel formula, pulling meaningful statistics out of a mess of data, talking to people about odd customer situations that we need to figure out, etc.). I love being involved in cross-functional projects that will eventually help our customers have a better experience dealing with StarTech.com as a company. I love the support and encouragement I get from my colleagues and superiors, and I love the company in general for its culture and work environment.

While this is not at all the career (or the life – for that matter) that I ever thought I would have, I really enjoy working and living in Canada. When I was starting university at the age of 19, I was sure I would be a teacher for German and English at a high school somewhere in Germany by the age of 25. Instead, I am the team lead of a customer service team at a tech company in Canada at 27. Plans change and opportunities will come up that we never thought we would consider. I am absolutely happy with my career so far and I am sure there will be more planned and unplanned changes in the future.  I have learned to embrace change and unforeseen circumstances and to make the best of any situation not only in regards to my work life, but also as it relates to my personal life. 

Gregg French’s Story: The History of His Story

As told to Brandon Pedersen, WorkStory Ambassador

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I suppose that I could argue that my life as a historian has been far from linear.  I began my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Western Ontario in September of 2005 with the full intentions of finishing my degree, entering law school, and practicing law for the remainder of my career.  The problem was, I didn’t know why I wanted to practice law; heck, I didn’t even know what type of law I wanted to practice.  All I knew was that some lawyers made a lot of money, they got to wear fancy dress clothes, and they held a position of power in society.  So, like most individuals that aspire to go to law school, I took the advice of my guidance counsellors and I enrolled in a program that I was interested in, and I knew I would excel in.  Luckily for me, the program was History.

From a young age, I have been interested in the past.  My grandparents were my first history teachers and at the age of eighty-seven, my lone remaining grandmother is still my oldest history teacher.  Growing up, I was inundated with a broad range of historical stories ranging from life in rural Ontario during the Great Depression, to the legendary stories of the Portuguese discovery of India in the late fifteenth century.  However, at the time, these were just stories from the past, not a possible lifelong career.

I guess that you could say that the cliché of “finding yourself” at university applies to me.  By the time that I had completed my third year of my undergraduate degree, I knew that I no longer wanted to become a lawyer (Side note: Spending a bit too much time with my friends, instead of studying for my LSAT, may have played a role in this decisions but I think that things like this happen for a reason).  However, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.  I enjoyed studying history and I enjoyed interacting with fellow students but I still didn’t think that studying history was a realistic or viable career goal.

I really enjoyed my undergraduate years at Western, so when I was faced with the decision of either coming back and doing my Masters or entering a job market that had recently been hit by the recession of 2008, it was a no brainer for me.  Essentially, I was forced to ask myself, “Let me get this straight, you’re going to pay me to study history and I get to teach undergraduate students in a tutorial setting, where do I sign?”  Little did I know, conducting my Masters research at the University of Western Ontario was going to introduce me to several influential people that were willing to show me that a career as a historian was both a realistic and a viable career that I could excel in.

I guess that brings us to today.  Presently, I am a fourth year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario.  Under the supervision of Professor Frank Schumacher, my dissertation examines American perceptions of Spain and the Spanish Empire from 1776 to 1914 (For more information, check out my website http://greggfrench.wordpress.com/).  Sound like a bunch of theory and historical jargon?  Well, to a certain degree, it is.  However, at the root of the narrative is a story about the past. Historians are story tellers, and it is important for us all to remember that.

At the moment, I just returned from three months in Washington, DC, where, on behalf of a Doctoral Research Fellowship from the German Historical Institute and a Harris Steele Travel Fund Award from the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario, I was conducting research at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress.  Currently, I am working on a body chapter of my dissertation, applying for future fellowships, working on a few publications, and preparing to teach my first course during the Winter Semester of 2015.  So life is busy but that keeps things exciting. 

I hope to finish my dissertation by the Fall of 2015 and at that time, I hope to either acquire a post-doctoral fellowship or be teaching at a post-secondary institution.  My career goal is to acquire a tenured position at a post-secondary institution that will allow me to continue to conduct research, as well as continue to teach university students.

Advice for an individual that is interested in becoming a historian? 

Surround yourself with a strong support group.  Friends, family, and mentors help with the long hours of solitary work. 

If you intend to do a Ph.D., be prepared that your friends will be getting married, buying houses, having children, and making more money than you until you finish your dissertation, and perhaps for several years after.

Block out the noise.  Not a day goes by where I don’t see an article where a Ph.D. candidate or a recent graduate is writing about his/her difficulties in finding gainful employment.  Yes, I feel for these individuals; heck, I’m in the same boat as them but reading too many of those articles will often cloud you mind with negative thoughts.  My advice is keep your head down, get your own work done, help other people as much as you can, and remember that you volunteered for this.  Dr. Christopher Stuart Taylor gave me that advice when I started my Ph.D. work and now I’m passing it on.

Be organized and focused. 

Remember that every day is not going to be filled with sunshine and roses.  Sometimes, you’re going to have a lecture that doesn’t go well or you’re going to have a day where you can’t find what you’re looking for in the archives.  Don’t block those days out, learn from them.  Also, make sure to remember the day when you saw that light bulb go off over one of your student’s heads or remember the day when you found exactly what you were looking for in the archives.  Those days keep me going; hopefully they will keep you going too.