Co-op Student Feature: Women & Gender Studies Student Sarah Elsawy

Co-op Student Feature: Women & Gender Studies Student Sarah Elsawy

Challenging Misconceptions while Relocating to a New City

How Sarah Elsawy’s co-op experience became a platform to voice for Arts students, Women in STEM.

Work terms: Department of National Defense (Government of Canada)

Some would describe Sarah Elsawy as having always been an outspoken advocate for equality rights.

“I think I’ve always had an interest in analyzing equality within society and looking at how power dynamics play out on a day-to-day basis”, she explains, “I also have a keen passion for working with at-risk individuals, which stemmed from a high school job I had at a community centre that dealt with marginalized families and youth.”

Sarah has been able to translate that passion into her studies as a double major in Women & Gender Studies and Sociology. Finding out about the Co-op program option available was a huge bonus: “Knowing that I would gain professional experience, I was relieved to know I would have a chance to make myself a well-rounded candidate for post-grad options.”

A unique work experience

Originally, Sarah expected to secure a co-op placement with a non-profit organization, which she assumed was the traditional position for social sciences and humanities students. When she applied to the Department of National Defense (DND), an arm of the Canadian government, she didn’t expect to get a call back. Now with two successful work terms under her belt at the federal agency, she couldn’t have imagined a better outcome.

“It was the best decision I ever made. I now have extensive experience that correlates to my field of study.”

An opportunity to advocate for women

In her first four months of work, she tackled basic administrative tasks and established herself as a capable employee. Following that, her second four-month term saw her taking on a new role: she became part of the organization’s HR Recruitment and Diversity Team where she had the opportunity to raise awareness of the lack of female presence in the agency, a highly tech-oriented environment, specifically targeting women in STEM positions.

“I was able to work on certain projects that aimed to continuously mitigate the gender imbalance to the best of the organization’s ability. This included reforming our recruitment strategies to reach a more gender-diverse audience. I also had other responsibilities like creating various communication pieces like blog posts to improve the organization’s public platform on its support to the Women-in-STEM movement.”

Challenging misconceptions as an Arts student

As a Women and Gender Studies student, working in the tech-dominated organization gave Sarah a unique perspective and says her employers valued her intellectual capabilities and interpersonal skills as assets. Her job offered her the chance to further her passion for advocacy for women’s empowerment in a real and tangible way.

“Women and Gender Studies students are mindful, versatile, and strategic problem solvers. As society is evolving and becoming more culturally aware and conscious, organizations and companies are following suit, focusing on increasingly hiring those with highly interpersonal skills.

Because many STEM positions are occupied by men, my work with the DND focused on ways to encourage women to apply or even introduce them to the idea of pursuing STEM-related fields.

Joining the organization was definitely an eye-opening experience. I met some fantastic people and I got to be a part of a team that works to protect Canada and Canadians safety. I went through a rigorous screening process to get security clearance access to work on sensitive classified materials which made it an extremely unique and exclusive experience. I consider myself extremely lucky that I got to do all this!”

On relocating

Sarah had the opportunity to relocate to the city of Ottawa for her work term. 

“I never spent more than a night away from home, so this was a huge decision to make. My organization offered reimbursement of any travel fees and the agency’s HR department provided a list of housing options available to students who are relocating to Ottawa; all of this essentially made this decision a bit easier for me.”

“The relocation process itself was simple, and I am very glad I made the decision to move away from home for co-op because I now have the skills and capabilities of living on my own that could not have been taught to me through schooling.”

While she encountered the challenges of homesickness that comes with living on her own in a new city, she affirms that she would do it all over again if given the opportunity to, because of the sense of independence she gained.

“My co-op placement has not only taught me valuable experience pertaining to my field of study and the world of work, but the relocation has taught me essential life-skills that enable me to be successful while living on my own.”

From co-op to full time employment

Perhaps the most valuable outcome for Sarah is the offer of a full-time position with the agency, which she credits the opportunity arising due to the co-op program.

“During my second work term, my employer approached me with the intention of hiring me on full-time. He told me that when I complete my degree, I have a job lined up for me if I’m still interested at that time. It’s amazing to know that I have this opportunity open to me and that’s all because of co-op.”