2020-12-16T16:28:20-05:00Aug 14, 2020|

Studying in Canada and learning valuable life lessons

From an interview with Oscar Cecena


At the age of 35, Oscar Cecena came to Canada from Mexico as an international student with a crystal clear idea of what he wanted to do: His plan was to change careers from IT (information technology) to HR (human resources). Oscar completed the Human Resources program at George Brown College in Toronto, graduated, did an internship and landed a job in his field of study. He quickly discovered that HR was not really his thing, and he had to pivot again! Oscar took the time to talk to us about his journey and share some insights about studying in Canada, and how he applied the lessons, he learned to his job search and his rejuvenated IT career.


Learn more about the Canadian job market for information technology (IT)


When I arrived in Canada, my goal was to do well in school, get my certificate, land a job in human resources and start a whole new professional life. It meant starting from scratch, but at the time, I was tired of IT and wanted to do something a little less machine and a little more human. So I began my studies in human resources. 

Going to university offers benefits beyond the obvious technical skills and knowledge from whatever program you’re in. One of the key advantages is that you meet lots of people. When my wife and I arrived, we had no friends, no family and knew nobody in Canada. The most valuable thing that I got from my program was that I met lots of people, and seven years later, some of my closest friends here are actually from that program.

The second advantage is the fact that by going to school, you will practice English every single day! Most of us come to Canada, speaking a completely different language with the goal of making our English better. I learned English as a kid, but my English was very formal. I had no idea how to use slang or how to actually sound like a normal person speaking English. At university, you have to speak English in your classes no matter what you’re taking. You not only talk to people around you in English, but you also have to do presentations in English, you need to talk to your classmates about homework in English. Even if you have some prior knowledge of English, it’s the little things that make a big difference in communicating. The fact that you’re speaking with English-speaking people who have lived here all or most of their lives is a great opportunity.

The hardest part for me at the time was to feel confident that my English was good enough. I think the advantage of being at school is that you’re allowed to make mistakes. If you make a mistake in a presentation, the worst thing that can happen is that you get a bad grade, and that’s it. If you make a mistake with a client in a business situation, that can go wrong very quickly.

Understanding culture is as important as job skills

It’s not just grammar and pronunciation mistakes. Lots of people make those, even in professional settings, it’s not usually a big deal. People understand. But sometimes it’s about cultural differences. One example is, where I come from in Mexico, our humour might be considered politically incorrect here in Canada. If you happen to make an inappropriate joke with your friends at school, they’re going to say, “You know what, dude, don’t do that here.” It’s important to learn about the culture and respect cultural differences.

Understanding the Canadian culture and people (knowing what to say and what not to say and how to act in different situations) has definitely helped me navigate my career. Most people have hard skills –  everybody knows something – project management in my case. But treating other people the way they want to be treated, especially if you’re dealing with clients, is a skill, that as someone new to the culture, takes twice the effort. Having that experience at school, it just opened my mind to completely different cultures.

I’m an all-or-nothing type of guy, so I decided not to hang out with anybody from Mexico or who spoke Spanish. I didn’t want to go back to my comfort zone. I wanted to learn about the culture here as fast as I could.

Get to know Canadian culture with these podcasts, films and TV shows

Finding a job in your field and then realizing it’s not right for you 

When I finished the program at George Brown, the company where I was working as an intern offered me an HR job, and I took it! It was then that I realized this was not for me. They fired me two days before Christmas.

First – and this is very personal – I became depressed because in my mind, I had lost two years of my life: one year studying HR, and another year was working in HR. I was 37, and I needed to start from scratch again as if I was a recent grad from an engineering school. I didn’t really end on the best of terms with my employer, which didn’t exactly boost my confidence in looking for another job.

Although this was a big blow, it forced me to bounce back. It rekindled my love for IT. I thought, “I have sixteen years of experience in IT – I’m going to use them!” I also got into fitness. Every morning I woke up, made breakfast for my wife and myself. She went to work, and I went to the gym for an hour and a half. That gave me the energy to look for work, to network, and to meet new people. It took me a couple of months to get a job.

Using HR skills to land a brand new IT job 

Studying HR gave me a real advantage when I started looking for a job. I learned how interviews are done, how recruiting is done, and how employers select a resume. So I had that in the back of my mind.
I thought, “This is how I’m going to prepare my resume, these are the people I’m going to network with, and I’m going to contact someone on LinkedIn that I don’t know and ask them to meet up.”

I thought I had wasted my time in school, but everything I had learned helped me so much! I applied to seventy jobs in total, and I got sixteen interviews: most went to second interviews, three went to the last round, and one landed me my job. Most of what I did was because of what I learned at school. I remind myself that if instead of coming as an international student, I just landed up here as a PR and needed to find a job, I would have done things completely differently. 

My view is that in Canada, the company hires the person, not the skills. So if you don’t click with the people who interview you, it won’t necessarily matter if you are the most qualified at the job. You need to have a connection with the people you’re going to be working with. Not only will that help you get a job, but it will also help you grow in your role and grow within a company.

This is obvious for sales roles, but it’s also true for developers and designers and lots of roles. You need to like the people you’re working with because you’re going to be spending one-third of your 24-hour day with them.

Being a people person and part of the community

I manage the onboarding team at a global software company. My title is Senior Director of Customer Onboarding. So any new client that comes to us goes through my team. We make sure that we deliver what they need in the time-frame that they were expecting. I’m the first person the client meets after sales. They’ve done their job; they got the contract signed, and then it’s my turn to get the client up and running.

This role is a little bit of project management, but I would say it’s 80% client relations. The way I explain it when people ask me what I do is, “Well, they basically pay me because the clients like me.” Of course, we need to deliver on time and all that, but the main reason that I’m in that position is that the client likes me.

This all ties back to what I was saying about the importance of learning, being sensitive to different cultures, and knowing that you’re dealing with people from all over the world. As I said, one of the reasons that I wanted to change careers from HR to IT was because I felt that I lacked that human connection. Now my day is filled with meetings, talking to people.

I also have this thing on the side called Immigrants of Toronto, a podcast where I interview newcomers and share their stories of immigration. My goal was to open peoples’ minds with real stories of immigration. Some stories have happy endings, and others don’t. They all share the journeys of people who were born in a country thousands of miles away, who, for various reasons, decided to move to this city to start a new life, eating different food, speaking a different language, and seeing the world in a completely different way. I interviewed a good friend of my wife’s about immigrating as an international student, and she shared the challenges she faced and some of the lessons she learned. We just launched our First Anniversary Episode! It has been a very gratifying experience.

I fell in love with Toronto because of its diversity. Seeing so many people from so many different backgrounds speaking languages I don’t understand, and feeling that it doesn’t matter where I came from – I am part of this community: I belong.

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