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Erin Lum

SFU Student Undergraduate
Communication, Art + Technology › Communication | Arts + Social Sciences › Sociology

My 4-month co-op role at ArtStarts in Schools was a gratifying experience that allowed me to develop vital skills and combine my artistic, academic, and professional interests.
Experience Details
Introduction + Preparation

My experience finding my co-op at ArtStarts in Schools was unique. Through my pre-existing job at Vancouver-based film festival and arts non-profit F-O-R-M, I reached out to ArtStarts in Schools to initiate a partnership between our organizations in the summer of 2023. I was introduced to ArtStarts and its staff members through collaborating on an event in November 2023. I learned that ArtStarts was looking for a student to fill a Communications and Development Assistant role, and given that I am studying Communications and have experience working in arts non-profits and with youth, I was offered this incredible opportunity. I contacted SFU’s Communications (CMNS) co-op advisors with this job prospect and learned that students can propose student-developed co-ops. I worked with the co-op advisors and my supervisor at ArtStarts, to shape this role into a meaningful learning experience that also fulfills the requirements for a CMNS co-op. 

This unique entry into a co-op job meant that I had already accumulated a first-hand understanding of the organization I would be working for, became acquainted with the workplace culture and values, and met some of my future colleagues. Having this knowledge ahead of time greatly helped prepare me for the role. However, this rare opportunity also meant that I missed out on the traditional hiring process of researching, applying, and interviewing for a job—a vital experience for students to learn from. Luckily, I still participated in the CMNS co-op preparation course and workshops which helped me feel confident in my skills for the next time I enter the job market. Before starting the role, I reviewed the job requirements and created a flexible, detailed schedule for my average week in anticipation that changing to a 9-5 would be an adjustment, as this is the first time I have ever worked full-time. I also set aside time to brainstorm what I wanted to learn and achieve through this job. Approaching my co-op role with this mindset made my time at ArtStarts both personally and professionally gratifying. 

During my Experience
Orientation and First Weeks

My orientation started in December 2023 in an unconventional fashion; I worked part-time in two-hour increments throughout December. These increments were onboarding meetings to help me naturally integrate into the organization before my full-time position started in January. I met with the Co-Executive Director who would be my co-op supervisor and the Manager of Communications and Development with whom I would be working closely. These discussions also allowed me to define and communicate my learning goals for my co-op term. Since a Communications role requires interaction with and understanding of all departments, the main purpose of these meetings was to orient me toward ArtStarts’ history and key activities; booking arts performances in BC schools, working with the City of Vancouver and BC Arts Council to provide grants to schools, artists, and school districts, and hosting free community arts events to engage young people. 

My onboarding was primarily focused on reading materials. I read the Strategic Plans of government bodies that fund the arts (on the municipal, provincial, and federal level) and learned about the school districts in BC to aid my understanding of the education system and non-profit sector. To understand ArtStarts’ longstanding history as an organization, I read past Annual Reports, Strategic Plan(s), and their Communications Manual and Strategy documents. I also read my supervisor's Master's Thesis where they researched how arts organizations engage with young people. Reading these materials during this orientation period greatly helped me ease into the transition from full-time school to full-time work. 

Day to Day

ArtStarts staff work in a hybrid (primarily remote) format. Upon starting full-time in January, I quickly settled into a day-to-day rhythm. I learned that Communications roles are ever-changing—my weeks never looked the same because most of my work is task-based, outside of a few recurring activities such as ArtStarts’ monthly newsletter. The majority of my tasks were to be done independently and with feedback and support from my supervisors at different stages of the process. Later in my 4-month role, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with different staff members to support other departments with communications and design assets. 

The staff communicates internally over Slack and through weekly virtual meetings. I had around four meetings each week; a beginning-of-the-week check-in with my supervisor, a weekly all-staff meeting, a meeting with the Booking and Touring department, and a Communications department meeting. At the start of the workday, each staff member provides an update via Slack on their to-dos for the day. This helped me understand the workflow across the team and various departments, even if I was not working with them directly. This practice was also a good exercise to evaluate and record my productivity. 

Because of the mostly remote format (due to ongoing renovations occurring at the ArtStarts office), I made an effort to spend at least 3 days a week working outside my home. I often visited local libraries, cafes, and campus for a change of scenery. Wednesdays became the day of the week when 3 of my colleagues and I would work together at our downtown Vancouver office. This quickly became the highlight of my work week! 

Learning and Adaptation

This role allowed me to familiarize myself with new software and learn various technical skills. One of my most prominent tasks was updating and overhauling over 14 pages on the ArtStarts website. ArtStarts has a bespoke website, meaning the website was designed and built specifically for this organization (unlike the easy-to-use templates of website builders like Squarespace and WordPress). This task was a learning curve in grasping the unconventional intricacies and functionalities of the website. It required lots of trial and error, asking questions, and (very briefly) experimenting with inputting code! 

Another task that required learning was creating and editing 4 instructional videos to help ArtStarts’ audience navigate their website and booking system. Because ArtStarts has a license with Adobe, I wanted to take this opportunity to challenge myself by editing on Adobe Premiere. Although completing these 4 videos took more time and effort than if I were using editing software I’m familiar with, I gained a useful technical skill that can be added to my CV. I also learned how to use the newsletter management platform Mailchimp and designed three new templates for the organization to use in the future. 

Quickly adapting to a new work environment is another part of a co-op job. For example, ArtStarts staff often give formal presentations during staff meetings to propose new ideas and demonstrate what they’re working on. I had to adapt to this formal meeting format by preparing and giving 2 presentations. Through this, I exercised my public speaking abilities and learned how to be engaging and personable even in a virtual format. By the end of the 4-month role, I became (surprisingly) comfortable with speaking up in meetings, contributing my feedback, and volunteering to present information.

Accomplishments and Challenges

My intended learning goals were as follows: 

  1. Gain experience in creating visual design assets for a brand.
  2. Deepen my understanding of the non-profit system in BC and Canada.
  3. Learn how to conduct newsletter outreach activities via Mailchimp. 

I am pleased to say that I fulfilled these goals! Proposing a new brand identity was a particularly exciting undertaking. I was able to exercise my creativity while researching colour theory, experimenting with design, facilitating feedback discussions with staff, and creating a brand guide. My ideas for an updated brand are now integrated into ArtStarts’ public-facing communications. 

Outside of my learning goals, other accomplishments that I am particularly proud of are; co-leading the coordination of a Family Day Arts Event in collaboration with Vancouver Civic Theatres, overhauling 14+ pages on the ArtStarts website, and copywriting and designing for ArtStarts’ 2023 Annual Report. I am leaving this role with an increased sense of confidence in my abilities overall and a newfound comfortability stepping into leadership. This is largely due to the supportive environment at ArtStarts and my supervisor, who put care into aligning my projects with my desired areas of interest and improvement. 

The biggest challenge I faced in this role was working remotely. As someone who enjoys interacting with people, I found it harder to connect and adapt to the workplace culture without the in-person aspect. Moreover, it was difficult to separate the boundaries between work and home, as the home is full of potential distractions and interruptions. What first helped me overcome this challenge was to share this hurdle with my supervisor and the CMNS co-op advisors. I then arranged to work outside my home for at least 3-days a week and initiated a weekly office meet-up with fellow staff, which allowed me to genuinely connect with my colleagues and actively integrate into the workplace culture. These solutions undoubtedly improved my productivity and enjoyment in the role. Furthermore, facing and overcoming this challenge was an important opportunity to learn about myself and my working habits.

Reflection & Tips

My time working with ArtStarts was enjoyable and fulfilling. The transition to a full-time job after doing many consecutive semesters of university was an experience that taught me a lot about myself—my work habits, experiencing primarily remote and independent work, and my emerging areas of artistic and professional interests. I have previous experience in administration, communications, and event planning, but this role allowed me to grow my confidence in my ability to lead tasks. I was able to develop new skills and experiment with topics that interested me, such as brand identity and visual design. I am extremely glad to have completed this co-op term with an abundance of new perspectives, reflections, and learnings. 

Most Valuable Aspects of This Experience

I gained many valuable experiences as a result of my co-op. Firstly, working at a relatively large non-profit and one of the biggest arts organizations in the province was a new venture for me. It was especially interesting to be involved when ArtStarts is in a distinctive time of refocus, reflection, and strategic planning for the future of their organization. ArtStarts is also unique as it engages with many different audiences; young people, governments and granting bodies, educators, school districts, artists, families, and community members. I learned a lot from observing what it is like to serve and balance various communities simultaneously. Another takeaway I am grateful for is learning how one can put their personal and professional values into practice through their work. For example, I witnessed ArtStarts staff members continually interrogate how to integrate their commitment to social justice into their organizational worldviews and activities. This is an inspiring lesson to take with me for my future. Lastly, I truly enjoyed the workplace environment and had the honour of learning from their wonderful staff who each carry a breadth of different experiences. 

Connection to Academic Studies or Career Goals

As someone who is simultaneously a university student, practicing multi-disciplinary artist, and administrator, I feel lucky to have held a role that naturally engages my creative, professional, and academic interests. I had previously wondered if it was possible to find a workplace that allows for this! 

I am currently pursuing a joint major in Communications and Sociology. Working as a Communications and Development Assistant allowed me to apply my education in the communication field to tasks related to marketing, writing, strategizing, and design. Moreover, my interest in sociological research was well-aligned at ArtStarts. My supervisor frequently relates academic theory to work (such as through discussions about strategy, pedagogy, and worldview) since ArtStarts’ work heavily engages with culture, arts, youth, and education. This strong connection to my academic studies made my co-op term all the more satisfying. I also found that working at ArtStarts offered a reciprocal relationship with my artistic practice. I was able to utilize my unbridled creativity and ideas in various tasks—I honed administrative, technical, leadership, and collaborative skills that will, directly and indirectly, contribute to a sustainable future artistic career. Lastly, this co-op uncovered an emerging interest to be in leadership positions. Community impact and connection have always been central values of mine; through the various projects and mentorship I received throughout my co-op, I feel an increased excitement for the possibility of leading in my future career. 

Advice for Future Students

Early in my onboarding to ArtStarts, my supervisor encouraged me to think about a job beyond mere employment, but rather an opportunity to put values and theory into practice. How can this 4-month co-op term contribute to my overarching career goals, interests, personal values and ethics? I would encourage future students to think of a co-op job not only in terms of what you can contribute to an organization as an employee, but also how an organization can help you explore your interests, achieve your goals, and supplement your learning. This refreshing mindset informed and grounded my co-op experience. I know I will bring this philosophy with me in my future career endeavours. 

I will also emphasize the generic advice to be unafraid to ask questions, for support, or to be honest about your capacity. Open communication with your coworkers is not only effective but builds reciprocal trust and understanding. Finally, I encourage future students to make a genuine effort to connect to the culture and people of the organization. Accomplishing goals through your work is always rewarding, but I always find that my most memorable experiences and takeaways from professional endeavours come from the people I meet along the way.