Eight paths to success

Students describe the moment they knew exactly what they had to do with their lives

Josh Jarvis. (Photograph by Laura Mills)

Josh Jarvis. (Photograph by Laura Mills)

From mussel farm to biotech firm

On the shore lay flat greenery and short houses and, in the distance, empty skies touched the sea. Between them was a fibreglass boat, a government scientist and a mussel-farm labourer with a high school diploma.

Josh Jarvis of Souris, P.E.I., had worked in labour jobs all the way to age 27. He had thought of doing something else with his life, though he wasn’t quite sure what, until that spring in 2009 when he was tasked with taking a scientist on a research trip.

“He was probably not much older than I am now,” says Jarvis, now 33. The Fisheries and Oceans scientist explained his research—testing the water for invasive species—and that piqued his interest.

“I never thought it would be something I would even think of doing,” says Jarvis, adding that pursuing science would entail a possibly unpleasant challenge: going back to the classroom. “I didn’t like school when I was in high school.”

It took three years of upgrading his high school credentials to get into the bioscience technology program at Holland College in Charlottetown. In between semesters, Jarvis still worked on the mussel farm.

Jarvis was hired by a local firm, BioVectra, where he had worked as an intern. Now a fermentation technician for the biotech company, which makes active ingredients for drug companies, Jarvis spends his days in a lab working with fungi and bacteria—not exactly the fisheries research that inspired him, but, Jarvis says, “I like where I ended up.”

When he got his new job, Jarvis quit the mussel farm, finally liberated from the repetitive work he had tired of. “My current job, I may do the same thing day after day, but we may not make the same product,” he said. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”

The artist who once fixed cars

“What do you think about when you aren’t thinking of anything?” It was almost a philosophical question—hard to answer, especially for a 17-year-old. Natalie Lauchlan thought about it for days.

It was spring in Calgary in 2008. The Grade 12 student was lining up for the water fountain at a music festival when a sixtysomething man struck up a conversation. He asked about her future plans. Lauchlan didn’t have a firm answer. If she’d had one, “that’s what you should do,” he told her.

Then in her final year of high school, Lauchlan had spent three years in the machine-shop class, where she performed so well, she started working for her teacher part-time. Once, Lauchlan and her classmates built a car. “I felt such an incredible sense of accomplishment and responsibility,” she says.

Buried in the shop-class overalls was an artist, even if Lauchlan didn’t know it yet. There was the documentary she made of her shop class and submitted to a film festival. Then there were the bits of leftover metal that she welded into likenesses of her classmates and left on her teacher’s desk.

“I know nothing about this man, but he completely changed my life,” she says of the man she’d met at the music festival. “If it hadn’t happened, I definitely would have gone into the trades.”

The more she mulled over the man’s question, the more art seemed to be the answer. Then Lauchlan’s teacher brought her into his office one day. Welding “isn’t what you need to be doing with your life,” he told her.

“That was an interesting conversation and sort of affirmed my curiosity,” Lauchlan says. “I had signed up for the apprenticeship program and was looking to start, but instead I took an art school course.”

Since finishing her bachelor of fine arts in craft and emerging media in 2014, Lauchlan has exhibited her installation, performance and text art across the country, won two emerging-artist alumni awards from the Alberta College of Art and Design, and is now working as the artist in residence for the Calgary Board of Education.

Career coach uncovers a life underground

The first email to Paul Ricker went unanswered. The second prompted a message to try him after 3:30 p.m: “I’m working underground every day.” The mine survey technician spends mornings more than 700 m beneath the earth in Thompson, Man., about 7,400 km north of Winnipeg. The nickel mine is dark, narrow—about four metres at its widest—hot, and has no cellphone reception. But it’s Ricker’s favourite part of the job. “Being down there, getting your hands dirty,” he says, “I love going underground.”

But toiling beneath the soil wasn’t always his job. The 34-year-old has a degree in telecommunications engineering, a computer-security certificate and has worked for years as a fly-fishing guide. It took a career coach to unearth his true calling.

Originally from Arnprior, Ont., about 70 km west of Ottawa, Ricker couldn’t find steady work after graduating from Carleton University. He turned his hobby of fly-fishing into a job, though it paid barely more than minimum wage. “I wasn’t sure what to do next,” he says. “Should I go to school again, or should I just work whatever job I can find?”

A relative suggested a career coach, who put Ricker through a two-month regimen of interviews, tests and even homework. “It started with what my skills and abilities are,” Ricker says, adding the coach “also went through a list of my previous jobs—what I did or did not like about them. I was unemployed, so I spent all my time on it.”

The coach, whose services cost $3,000, found Ricker was good at both spatial awareness and problem-solving—ideally, he needs to work with both his head and his hands—and gave him a shortlist of jobs. Mining caught his attention, so much so that he can’t remember most of the other options. So, in 2011, seven years after he graduated from university, Ricker went back to school, enrolling in the mining engineering technology program at Cambrian College in Sudbury, Ont. “It was worth the money, for sure,” Ricker says of the career coach. “I’m happy.”

Solace in a home away from home

The Aboriginal Resource Centre at Humber College was dull. Its walls were so boringly beige that no one could guess the original colour. It had only three armchairs, two desks and “not a lot of privacy,” says Sage Petahtegoose, 20 , who grew up 19 km west of Sudbury in Atikameksheng Anishnawbek. “That was a really shoebox one—two-cubicle-sized, almost.”

But that tight space brought people close, Petahtegoose says. “There was always the sense of togetherness when I was here.” The staff had “big personality,” and this is where she found comfort, support and a new direction in life.

Petahtegoose left home in 2012 to study drawing at OCAD University in downtown Toronto. The same year—within two months—Petahtegoose’s grandfather, uncle and aunt died, and another aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was alone in the city, going to classes, supporting myself,” she says. “I just felt like I was crumbling.” She started failing school, and realized she wasn’t suited for the competitive OCAD program, which she now calls an “expensive mistake.”

Lost, Petahtegoose wound up at Humber’s Aboriginal centre last year after its elder in residence, Shelley Charles, invited her to the campus in west Toronto. Charles, whom she knew through her community, listened to her problems, and staff there helped her find her calling. They printed off lists of potential programs, explained them thoroughly and offered to meet with program coordinators. “They were always happy to see me,” she says. “It’s the little things, but they add up to making me feel like I can count on them.”

Now in her first year of Humber’s film and television production program, Petahtegoose wants to be a filmmaker who tells Aboriginal stories, to show her experience and perspective to the world. She still goes to the centre, which is now in a new space that is eight times bigger. “It reflects all the people they helped,” she says of its expansive new digs.

Leah Harris at St. Peter's College in Muenster, SK. In 2014 Leah's husband and youngest son both died of cancer, after spending time with them in the hospital Leah decided to become a nurse. She lives in Humboldt, SK with her son Patrick who's 13 and has high functioning autism. (Photograph by Derek Mortensen)

Leah Harris at St. Peter’s College in Muenster, SK. In 2014 Leah’s husband and youngest son both died of cancer, after spending time with them in the hospital Leah decided to become a nurse. She lives in Humboldt, SK with her son Patrick who’s 13 and has high functioning autism. (Photograph by Derek Mortensen)

Two lives lost, but a purpose gained

A month after her husband died of cancer in April 2014, Leah Harris suffered another tragic blow. Her 10-year-old son Patrick was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Before Harris’s eyes, he began fading away. At first, he limped. Then, half his body was paralyzed. Two months later, in July 2014, her boy died. “I didn’t even have the time to grieve for my husband,” Harris says.

From the grief emerged a newfound sense of purpose for the 38-year-old from Humboldt, Sask., about 100 km east of Saskatoon. After caring for her husband and son during their final moments—and watching others do so—Harris decided to become a nurse.

Harris’s husband, Steven, was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2013 and, near the end, lost all mobility. “He had a fall and hurt his hip,” Harris says. “I needed to help him with getting around the house or just day-to-day needs.” It was the same for Patrick, even though there was a home-care team for the boy. “They wanted to help with his care, but he only wanted Mom,” Harris says.

While Patrick spent only his last day in hospital, Steven was there for his last 10 days, during which the nurses cared for him “almost like a mother to a child.” And, in a way, the nurses also cared for Harris. “They’d sit down with me and I’d cry and be all upset and they were like, ‘Don’t worry about it. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we’re here for.’ ”

Harris is now in her first year at the University of Saskatchewan’s four-year bachelor of nursing program. “Before that, I felt I was floundering,” Harris says of her decision, made eight months after Patrick’s death. “It was almost exhilarating. It was just, like, ‘Yes, I know what I want to do.’ ”

A fateful stroll and no more dirty hands

Phil Boutros could have gone anywhere that day, but he took a stroll through Simon Fraser University and that’s when he decided he no longer wanted to be a mechanic.

Then 31, Boutros fixed motorcycles at a Harley-Davidson dealership, and had been in the trade since he left high school. “I would have been about 11 or so when we moved, and the neighbour across the street was a motorcycle rider and racer and I got really interested,” he says. But the job paid only $20 an hour for work that was often hazardous—“I have friends who have problems with toxicity levels in their bodies because of all the dirty oil”—and involved dealing with some abrasive customers.

Boutros was walking through campus with his then-girlfriend, who worked at the university in Burnaby, B.C. They wandered into the office of an acquaintance in information technology, who managed a departmental website and made more than Boutros in a much better work environment. “Everyone’s hands are clean in this place, whereas my hands are not clean and covered in cuts and bruises and burns.”

Since he had been tinkering with computers for years, Boutros thought he could do the job. When he asked what he needed to get one like it, they said he needed a degree.

After deciding almost on the spot to apply, Boutros had to attend college to upgrade his qualifications before he could be accepted into Simon Fraser’s physics program. He switched to computer science a year after and graduated in 2011.

After stints in the private sector, Boutros ended up back where it all started: at Simon Fraser, this time doing IT work in the dean’s office at the faculty of applied science. In his spare time, he still fixes motorcycles. “The fee is absolutely zero, but you can only come if I know you.”

The accidental actor, turned professional

A barbecue in the summer of 2001 changed Mark Bradbury’s life. The paper-mill worker was having a glass of wine next to the bonfire when a theatre friend told him he had signed him up to do a musical. A local production of
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat required more male actors than Corner Brook, N.L., could provide.

Bradbury had acted in high school, though he abandoned it after he graduated. “The people who acted for a living were big movie stars, right? And they lived in big mansions in Hollywood.” He enrolled in anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) in St. John’s, but dropped out after three years. Then he worked in retail and as a bank teller, before returning to the College of the North Atlantic for a diploma in environmental engineering technology. That led to a vocation that “wasn’t fulfilling.”

It was as though he’d been reborn on stage. “It was something I felt so passionate about, that I was so drawn to, that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” he says. He started acting in more local productions, so many, it was difficult to balance theatre with the paper mill. Then his teenage nephew was diagnosed with leukemia and the mill’s importance diminished. “Life is short,” he says. “If you don’t do what you actually want to do at the time when the opportunity is ripe, you may never get a chance to do that again.”

In 2004, Bradbury went back to MUN, this time for a bachelor of fine arts in the theatre. He graduated in 2008 and now runs his own company, Hard Ticket Theatre, in St. John’s, where life has come full circle. “We’re in the process of writing a new piece that is focused on the people who worked at the mill that I left.”

Wushu, medicine and a promise to the dying

An illness made Peter Liu into a martial artist and then an aspiring doctor, but a promise made to a dying cancer patient steered the 23-year-old to a career as a clinician scientist, a medical doctor who does research.

Born in China with an almost fatal blood disorder, Liu was treated with steroids that made him overweight, leading him to pick up
Wushu at age six. “Slowly, it kind of became a passion,” he says. Liu started competing nationally, then internationally. It gave him confidence, not just in himself, but also in his body’s ability to heal itself, and sparked his first thoughts about a career in medicine.

“If I can transform from someone who is disease-burdened, who is so chubby, to a world-class martial artist—I can only imagine the possibility out there,” Liu says.

In his third year of a four-year health sciences degree at the University of Calgary, Liu was volunteering at the local Foothills Medical Centre when a sixtysomething book lover—a “vibrant lady, gently spoken”—told him she had three months to live. Liu talked to her weekly, sometimes for as much as three hours and late into the night, until one week when he arrived and “was told by the nurse they had moved her somewhere where they could ‘better accommodate her needs.’ ” Liu never saw her again, though their conversations weighed on his mind. “I promised her that I would do what I could with my life to bring innovations to patients like her; that was the last thing I told her.”

He started to think about “all the struggles and restrictions we have with medicine,” Liu says. “We know a lot about cancer through basic science research, but a lot of this knowledge is not being translated to clinical treatment.”

Liu applied and was accepted into the University of Toronto’s M.D.-Ph.D. program, where candidates train as both doctors and researchers. It will take about nine years to complete his degrees, but, when he finally finishes, he hopes to work in a hospital where he can help bridge the gap between research and treatment.