LIMELIGHT INTERVIEW WITH LIZ HONG-FARRELL
In today’s globalized world, the opportunity to study abroad has become an invaluable experience for countless students worldwide. To shed light on the transformative power of international education and the intricacies of making it a reality for different young Canadian demographics, we had the privilege of sitting down with Liz Hong-Farrell, the assistant director for the International Experience Canada program.* With a wealth of knowledge and a deep passion for encouraging Canada’s youth, Liz has played a pivotal role in shaping the dreams and aspirations of students seeking to broaden their horizons. In this LimeLight interview, we delve into her journey, insights, and the profound impact of studying abroad.
1. What is your current title, and where do you work?
I work for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, a department of the Government of Canada. I am the Assistant Director responsible for stakeholder engagement and promotion for the International Experience Canada program.
The International Experience Canada program is a cultural program that allows Canadian youth between 18-35 to obtain a work permit and work and travel in one of over 30 partner countries with Canada.
As a reciprocal program, youth citizens from those countries can do the same in Canada. Being able to work in a different country is a great way for young people to experience cultures different from their own and gain the skills employers are looking for. You’re not just a tourist – you’re immersed in the culture because you live and work in it.
2. How did you learn about your current position? (Ex. Networking, Promotion, External Job Posting)
I was looking for a change and reached out to my network for possible opportunities, and this amazing role came up. It’s been so important for me to build and, more importantly, maintain my network of professional contacts. It takes a lot of work, but it’s so beneficial!
3. What sparked your interest in working in an international field?
When I reflect on my career, I’ve noticed a bit of a trend. While not always directly working in the international field, it’s always been there!
Early in my career, I worked in a government department focused on improving labour market outcomes for young Canadians, and while there, we had a few visiting delegations from different countries coming to Canada to learn about what we were doing and to share what they were doing. It was so interesting to hear about how so many things were the same despite being from different countries, and we were all just looking for ways to solve similar problems for our youth.
Then, I worked in a national charity where I had the opportunity to attend an international conference. Again, it was so eye-opening to see how things are done in other countries and what issues and barriers they face – sometimes, they were the same as what we face, but in other cases, so very different.
Fast forward a few years to another government department where I worked with the medical sector to fund projects that supported internationally educated health professionals to obtain their credentials and practice in their fields in Canada.
Finally, in this job, I promote the value and importance of international work and travel experiences to youth as a fantastic way to develop personally and professionally.
In all cases, it’s such an interesting way to look at the world. We are facing similar problems (e.g., youth unemployment, people wanting to work in the field in which they were educated, and wanting to increase civic and community engagement in youth). Learning about what strategies other countries used to mitigate these issues was so interesting, and it was wonderful when we could come together and work on a problem together.
4. Tell us about your first international experience, either traveling or working abroad.
For me, even though going to the US is technically an international experience for a Canadian (and we travelled to many parts of the US from a young age on holidays), I am going to count my first overseas trip as my first international experience – that was to Turkey in 2009! Yes, it took me that long to go abroad!!
It was travelling and not working, though. I found it fascinating to visit the many mosques, palaces, and other historical sites, knowing that THAT indentation in that marble step was made by people walking those same steps thousands and thousands of years ago! We are too new a country to have something like that. It made me think about how young Canada really is. Our buildings are hundreds of years old, not centuries.
Working while abroad was a different story. While I have always been working with international audiences in some way, I always did that either in Canada or through virtual means (email, teleconferences, videoconferences). I never had to go anywhere, and when I finally did, it was such a different experience!
My first working abroad experience was attending a conference in South Africa for this current job. Before I left, I tried to prepare myself for the culture shock, but you never get it until you experience it. This was an international conference focused on the travel and tourism industry, and it was just so interesting to learn about the different barriers and considerations that each country faced when their youth travelled abroad and what and how they marketed their destinations. There were some things that would never have occurred to me as a Canadian working and travelling abroad: things like how safe it was for me as a person from X country or X community to go to a certain country, for example. Luckily, this was an international conference, so I was exposed to so many different people from many countries. That’s when I knew I was hit with the travel bug… but it also gave me a new appreciation for how much you can learn when you step out of your comfort zone!
5. Describe a typical day/week at the office at your current job.
Does anyone actually have a typical day/week in their jobs anymore?
My team works on stakeholder engagement and promotion, so much of what we do is all about how to best communicate the value of international work/travel/work-integrated learning and how we can work with other organizations to help break down barriers to going abroad.
We spend a lot of time talking to people – I think that’s likely the best part of our jobs. We all like to get out and talk to the people who work with youth to see what we can do to support them in encouraging more of their students and clients to take on an international experience. We, of course, love to talk to the youth that we serve – or are hoping to serve – to hear about why they are hesitant to go abroad and see if there is anything we can do to provide them with the information they need to make an informed choice. And if we can work with different organizations to create new resources or connect people together, then that’s a win for us. We take all this information in, do some of our own research, and try to come up with ways we can support youth in deciding to go on a work/travel/work-integrated learning opportunity.
And it’s so rewarding when we hear from youth who have gone on an experience through our program, and they come back saying how life-changing it was and how it helped them to make a decision about their career or about going back to school with a better sense of purpose. We’ve also worked with what we call communities of interest – youth who identify as being a part of a community that may face additional barriers to going abroad (e.g., Indigenous youth; youth identifying as part of 2SLGBTQIA+ communities). For example, we’ve had Indigenous youth who have told us that, because of their experience abroad through our program, they have learned more about another Indigenous culture in the world and want to then come home and learn more about their own culture- and they then want to become role models for younger people in their communities to show them that they can go abroad, too.
The most challenging thing for us is that going abroad just doesn’t seem to be in the mindset of many Canadians. It’s not a natural pathway for youth, and many parents that we’ve run into are not convinced that it’s a good idea.
Unlike other countries (like Australia, for example) where it’s not a matter of IF you go, but WHERE are you going, we run into many Canadian youth who don’t know that they can do this; their parents are not supportive of their kids “interrupting” their linear pathway of school-to-work transition; and even some academic advisors that don’t know what information to give their students who actually do want to go. We have work to do to shift Canada’s culture so that going abroad is a natural option – for youth, their parents, and their academic advisors.
Another challenge for us is knowing that we have a very limited sphere of influence – there are so many barriers to going abroad, but we can only do so much. We would love for more young people to have international work/travel/work-integrated learning experiences, but we can only give them the most up-to-date information that we can so that they can make an informed decision.
6. What has working in an international setting taught you about yourself and your own culture?
For me, I’ve only been able to work in an international setting for very short periods of time (e.g., days or weeks), and this has been focused on events or conferences. Even so, I think it’s been an important learning experience for me as I learn about different cultures and how similar we are, even if it seems so very different at first glance.
I am learning about my Canadian culture and my Chinese culture.
I spent most of my life here in Canada, and I was able to see how these cultures intersect as I travel to different parts of the world. This is, I think, something that really hit me more than I thought it would. The intersections of my two cultures, my gender, and how this was seen (and how people reacted to it) were quite interesting. For example, in some countries, there was an expectation that I would be able to relate to one culture over another because of my appearance, but once I spoke and did not have an accent, some perceptions changed. There was an understanding that I didn’t understand the nuances of some behaviours and customs because I was raised in Canada. I was able to ask more questions about customs and how they worked. These experiences gave me a much better understanding of some of the things my parents and grandmother used to do when I was young.
But no matter where I went, being Canadian was definitely a bonus! It’s so great to see how welcoming people were when they found out I was Canadian. And there were always questions about the mountains, polar bears, being sorry all the time, and the use of “eh”!
I have also learned that I really, really want young people to benefit from going abroad. There’s a t-shirt that I saw once that really resonated with me. It said, “You can’t have a narrow mind and a thick passport.” That is so true – you really learn about yourself and how adaptable you are when you’re abroad. I now continue to encourage my kids to think about taking a gap year or going abroad for a co-op placement or work-integrated learning opportunity if they can.
7. Do you have a career mentor or someone that you consult with about career growth?
Actually, I’ve been lucky to have a few people that I can turn to – each of them I met in different phases of my career. It’s been so useful to be able to talk to someone who can understand what I am going through. And because they have been with me through some significant periods of my career, they’ve been able to guide me towards my next steps. It’s also been quite helpful to have their support and to confirm that some of my decisions have been right for me at certain times of my life.
I would certainly recommend that young people take advantage of the wisdom of their “elders” and seek out this advice. It may not be something immediate that they get right away, but sometimes, that advice comes back later on as a voice in your head, and it just clicks!
8. Describe a moment in your career that you consider your greatest achievement.
Oh my… this one is a difficult one.
It is not really just one greatest achievement. This might sound sappy, but I have mentored some young public servants and other people coming into this sector, and just knowing and seeing when they have surpassed me in my own knowledge and capabilities is a truly wonderful feeling. For my management trainees, who in the past have come to me for guidance, and then watching them grow and flourish and seeing how they are now top executives within the Canadian government is honestly just so cool to experience.
There is another story that I feel really proud of. Within our program, we have worked really hard to get Canadian youth to want to go abroad. One of the communities of interest that we have worked hard on connecting with is indigenous communities. In 2018, there was a young man who I was talking to, and he was sort of hesitant at first about wanting to go abroad, but I continued sharing information with him and encouraging him to pursue these opportunities. Two years later, one of my colleagues actually ran into this young man again, and he not only credited our conversations and interactions for why he ended up working abroad, but he was getting ready to go to Italy to pursue a new career in fashion there. So cool!
9. How has COVID-19 impacted your work life?
Pre-pandemic, we were making progress in raising awareness of the IEC program and of the value of going abroad for work and travel/work-integrated learning experiences, promoting travel, and how young people could develop their skills if they travelled and worked abroad. We were out speaking to young people, their teachers, advisors, parents, and youth-serving organizations, and talking concretely about what information gaps were there and what we could do to support more young Canadians to go abroad.
With COVID, we could, of course, no longer promote travel. Instead, we switched our messaging to “Take the time now to research your options.” We hoped that we would be able to encourage young Canadians to learn about the possibilities and to research their possible destinations and pathways (co-op, internships, working holidays, work-integrated learning) so that when travel opened up again, they would have a plan.
We, of course, all worked from home, and the conferences and information sessions we attended and hosted all became virtual. It took a bit to get used to, but the team was able to take advantage of as many virtual possibilities as we could. I think the worst part of that virtual model for presentations was having to listen to a recording of yourself as it was played back!
Virtual presentations and conferences worked to some degree, but you can’t replace that personal connection with people.
10. If you are working from home, has that adjustment been difficult or enjoyable?
I think it’s been both difficult and enjoyable. The difficulty is, of course, not having that personal connection with people at various conferences and events and even missing the connection with your work team! We also had new people who started with us right at the beginning of the pandemic.
It was hard for them and for us to build that sense of team when some of them had never met in person. We had to really work on ways to build our social connections between team members virtually – those connections that would normally have happened naturally in hallways, coffee breaks, or lunchtime chats.
There’s also the tech difficulty – making sure that the connections are good enough, fast enough, stable enough! It took some time for employers to figure out what tools would also work from a WFH model.
The enjoyable part was, of course, not having the commute into work every day, especially in winter! We were, in many cases, speaking to some of our stakeholders via virtual means anyway, as many were not in Ottawa, so that part didn’t change. But we did really then focus on building the relationships more purposefully because of the pandemic that loomed overhead. I think we all just decided that this was important now, and we just automatically spent more conscious time getting to know each other beyond just being potential work partners/collaborators.
And we can’t forget the pandemic work wardrobe… work wear on top, pajamas on the bottom!
11. What type of things are you doing to balance your mental health and lack of social engagement?
During the pandemic, I made exercise a priority. With some chronic health issues, going to a gym or other structured fitness activity was a no-go. And with no more commute, I had the time to exercise. I started doing virtual challenges – earning medals while running, walking, stationary biking, or other intentional exercise! I now average about 4000 km a year (and I get medals at the end of my virtual challenges, too)! This actually put me in a better mental space, and I had more energy to face the day in front of a camera!
For the social part, our team did make an effort to connect virtually, just for that social time, at least once a week. We would have an open chat going during the day, where we dropped jokes or observations throughout the day – the same way we would chat when we were in the office. That helped quite a bit – especially with the new people, since they were part of an ongoing team conversation that was not always about work.
12. What is the best advice you can give to others in a global industry right now?
I think for us, and for me in particular, it’s keep encouraging. Keep encouraging the youth and their influencers- keep encouraging the educators and the parents. If I can convince the parents, we are halfway there. If I can convince school advisors, we are halfway there. A lot of parents are not encouraging their children. I was at a secondary school promoting our work experience plan, and this young man I was talking to had everything planned out for his study abroad experience; he had such an extensive plan in place and ready to go. And his mother, from across the room, came running at me and said, “You can’t have him! He needs to go into law school first, and then he can do this later.” We have to show people that this is a valuable experience and that the students are not just wasting their time. After some discussion, the mother was finally able to say, “We will talk about this more at home.” It is really surprising the pushback young people get when considering going abroad. I don’t believe the parents know the importance of it and what it can do for their kids. Their thought is that they are wasting their time or that they will not go back to school after completing the program. And quite honestly, we have found the opposite of that to be true.
*This interview and the views expressed in it are solely those of the interviewee. They are not in any way reflective of the International Experience Canada program or the views, policies, or opinions of the Canadian government.
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