About a couple weeks into my co-op term, I sat in on a small meeting for a special project. One individual walked into the room a little after everyone else had settled in, and my workplace’s Director greeted them warmly. The person had tidy silver hair and large eyes that shone with warmth and an undeniable hint of bold conviction. That conviction, as I soon found out through our introductions, came from many years of dedication to social work and citizen rights activism, which eventually entitled them to the Order of British Columbia.
“And what do you do?” The individual asked with a polite smile, and my brain suddenly decided to pull a fast one and completely erase all memory of my time at the job. What did I do? What was on that job description? What was my title?! Not the Order of anything, that’s for sure. I immediately felt professionally insignificant.
That’s how most of my interactions at meetings and networking gatherings played out– I would introduce myself to others and explain my role at the organization, but internally fight the urge to shy away because of their impressive backgrounds, profiles, and titles. I would compare their professional caliber (incredibly high) to mine (in Flo Rida’s words, low, low, low, low) and subsequently give up on trying to engage in further conversation or ask questions about their work, even though these were things I really wanted to do. The thought that I was a Co-op student while they were an established individual in their field made reaching out and building connections an extremely intimidating thing to do.
However, I soon realized that if I didn’t push myself out of my comfort zone and let go of my self-disserving thoughts, I would be giving up a very rare opportunity to connect with and learn from some exceptionally cool people. As soon as I took that step towards reaching out to people more, I discovered that they are not nearly as intimidating to talk to as I imagined. In fact, more often than not, they were happy to share about their work and why they are passionate about it. In the odd case that I met a less-than-warm response, I learned to shake it off and not take it personally.
In your Co-op placement, you too may meet many established individuals with impressive backgrounds. You’ll cross paths with the CEO of this, or the Executive Director of that, or the Board Member of something, and you may feel intimidated and unimportant. However, it is during these situations where you really should seize the opportunity to build connections with the people who are standing in the place you may aspire to one day be. They have so much acquired knowledge and experience and can teach you things you cannot learn in school.
Although you may feel you are small potatoes next to some people you meet through work, remember that everyone was once in your spot too. They understand that you are still learning and developing new skills, and typically are happy to help you do so as well. I encourage you to consider every moment you meet an inspiring or established individual as an opportunity to learn from them and their story. Introduce yourself, extend a hand, and you’ll thank yourself one day for connecting with the person on the other end of the handshake.