by Shamily Shanmuganathan.
Two years ago, if you had asked me where I saw myself, I definitely wouldn’t have known. I was in my last year of undergrad at the University of Waterloo and just wanted to finish school. But somewhere along my academic journey, I felt that there was a disconnect between what I wanted to feel and what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or experience but that I wanted to commit to a cause greater than myself. And so, I began my journey of looking for an experience that would help me grow while also nurturing my education and passion.
Fast forward a couple of months and I had the opportunity of being part of Waterlution’s Youth Advisory Board with 19 other members that I have never met before. I went in with passion and some knowledge about water but gained so much more. Online communications and video calls with youth across Canada who were once strangers developed into meaningful friendships. Delivering workshops and learning about Indigenous cultures along with beginning our own personal reconciliation journey was an experience none of us had imagined. To be completely honest, I’m quite upset that I didn’t put myself out there in my earlier undergraduate years because what I had gotten out of this experience has been not only a learning experience but a personal one as well.
“Not only was I in awe of the beauty of the province but also of the diversity of the youth advisory board… this is the first time I was able to witness diversity and inclusiveness and the role it played in our training.”
At our retreat in Squamish, British Columbia at the Cheakamus Centre (the traditional territory of Skwxwú7mesh Nation), all 19 of us strangers finally met in person while embracing the beauty of the wilderness. Not only was I in awe of the beauty of the province but also of the diversity of the youth advisory board. We had members of various cultures, educational backgrounds, skills, and abilities. Aside from school, this is the first time I was able to witness diversity and inclusiveness and the role it played in our training. Honestly, this was much needed for my personal growth. I was always one to shy away from experiences that included people from other educational backgrounds as I felt I could not contribute much. It was eye-opening to realize that you don’t always need to contribute to learn. Listening is just as important—maybe even more. I listened to some youth advisors identify various plants and birds and appreciated their knowledge. I listened to cultural educators Henry and Matthew share their stories and Traditional Ecological Knowledge for which I was very grateful for. By listening, I too gained invaluable knowledge.
My role as a volunteer youth advisor and as a Water Innovation Lab coordinator, along with past co-op work opportunities, helped me land my current role in the finance sector. There are many skills that Waterlution equipped me with that not only helped me during my interview process but in my job as well. I was able to speak to my improved leadership skills that were honed during the outreach and facilitation process of the Great Canoe Journey. This leadership skill did not come without the ability to solve complex problems in real time. When working with schools, children, and in general people, problems are likely to occur and it is essential that youth today are prepared to tackle problems to succeed in the modern workforce. During my time as a youth advisor, I had run into several problems such as recruiting schools to participate in the pilot year of the program. Although we all were dispersed through Canada, I was fortunate enough to have several other Youth Advisors based in Ontario to help each other out. Figuring out and being aware of your weaknesses is an underrated skill that I was able to work on and perfect. By working together with the cohort and filling in each other’s “gaps” or weaknesses, I was able to put my strengths into action and succeed.
“Being able to ask for what you need and provide what you can provide in return is an art.”
A huge component to delivering workshops to students in Ontario consisted of receiving sponsorships from local organizations and institutions that wanted to advance reconciliation and help us provide a stipend to Indigenous cultural educators/ knowledge holders. I realized that I had an opportunity to leverage my existing connections such as my academic institution, and local organizations that I have heard of. I did some heavy research on who and how our goal can help advance their missions and values and made a list of organizations and people I thought would be excellent sponsors. I then sent out an email which to my surprise received plenty of positive responses and arranged in person meetings to further discuss their involvement. I want to highlight here that writing that perfect e-mail took a lot of practise and silence before receiving responses and action. The silence at first was discouraging but I was curious as to what was missing. This process helped me perfect what I call—the art of online communication. Being able to ask for what you need and provide what you can provide in return is an art. Through emailing and meeting potential sponsors I had secured $1,600 in guest stipend funds that were used by youth advisors across Canada. The failures and successes of obtaining funding—a significant role in the non-profit world strengthened both my communication skills and problem-solving skills.
“…leadership skills don’t come without effective communication, speaking and presentation opportunities, as well as collaboration.”
During the interview for my current job, I was asked to talk about a time I showed leadership skills. It’s so important for me to stress this to future young leaders out there that leadership skills don’t come without effective communication, speaking and presentation opportunities, as well as collaboration. During my time with Waterlution, I can 100% say that my role consisted of all of these skills which in return sculpted and developed my leadership skills. When working with teachers and students to deliver the workshops, it’s important that you know your audience, what’s appropriate and to be observant. When I was delivering workshops, I had to adapt to various scenarios and class room settings to be able to effectively get the program’s message across to students from grades 3 -12. Presenting to a wide array of audiences not only helped my communication skills but also made me sensitive to what I was sharing and how I could make it easier for different students with different needs understand the underlying message. While working with Waterlution, I along with Gina (another youth advisor) had the amazing opportunity to travel to Winnipeg, Manitoba to deliver some Great Canoe Journey workshops to a few schools in memory of Danielle Moore. With a short amount of time, we had to work hard to connect with local Indigenous Knowledge Holders and teachers in Winnipeg.
This was quite an opportunity that enabled me to further put my presentation and speaking skills to action! My journey on Waterlution’s Youth Advisory Board has been one that was incredibly impactful and important. Many of the tasks of the Youth Advisory Board such as outreach, facilitating and grant writing has really diversified my skill set. Waterlution’s Great Canoe Journey and Water Innovation Lab has advanced my ability to effectively communicate and network with various stakeholders in different industries due to its global and multi-industry facet. It has honed many of the critical and soft skills required in today’s complex job market.
Volunteering doesn’t have to be tedious—think about how you want to change the world and then start searching.
To all those in post-secondary or high school, I strongly urge you to volunteer! It is so important to broaden your experience and exposure to diversify your skill set and there is no better time to do that than now. Volunteering doesn’t have to be tedious—think about how you want to change the world and then start searching. Volunteering with Waterlution was one of the best moves I made me for my personal growth as well as my career development. My roles were filled with responsibilities that helped me acquire industry – related skills, and work in a team in various ways. It also provided me with amazing opportunities that not only validated my interests and passions but also commit to bettering my community.
As my summer job with Waterlution comes to an end, I am extremely thankful for the invaluable knowledge, skills, and experience these roles had to offer! I am grateful to have worked with Karen Kun and Olivia Allen who have nurtured my strengths and provided me with unique opportunities to help me succeed in this industry.
I have come so far on this journey and could not have done it without the other YAB members, cultural educators, teachers, friends and industry professionals.