Higher Education the Key to Career SuccessMichele Custoreri | Inventory Specialist and Demand Planner, Caesarstone Canada
The following interview is with Michele Custoreri, an inventory specialist at Caesarstone Canada. After Custoreri was laid off from her first career, she took advantage of a provincial government program to enroll in a certificate program and earned a credential that put her into a new career, and gave her the learning toolkit to remain successful. In this interview, she expands on that experience and discusses how colleges and universities could change and adapt to better support their non-traditional students.
1. Why did you decide to leave your first career to earn a degree?
Well, it wasn’t really my decision. [My company] was downsizing and, of course, I got caught in this crossfire. I was laid off and I had all this great experience but I had no education.
What happened was, I was very lucky to be involved in [the province of Ontario’s] Second Career Program. … The government sent me back to school. I took a very intense eight-month supply chain and logistics certificate course. I was able to take an amazing course through Seneca College and they helped me grow my skills and actually added on to my existing skills.
I was able to support my background with a degree [and] … jump into the competition that was already there in the growing supply chain field.
2. Was your experience from your previous job counted in any way toward your credential at the end, or was it a matter of taking courses that may have reviewed or repeated some of the skills you already had?
A little bit of both. I had 20 years of experience in supply chain, but I also had association education; APEX being one of them, and some PMAC courses, some purchasing courses as well. They definitely added to it. The courses that I took — you did have to have some previous education, but because of my age and my experience and background, I was automatically accepted into the course.
3. What were the biggest roadblocks you encountered as an adult student returning to higher education?
First of all, I forgot how to learn! It was tough. Of course, so much of the education system has changed.
Going back to school, re-training yourself how to learn, is a big one. We’re so used to ‘doing’ as workers that we forget … how to think. So much in this world has changed when it comes to strategies, when it comes to research, when it comes to education, and the younger generation has so much up on us. That was probably the biggest hurdle.
[After] working in a company that’s so fast paced, having to slow down and sit back and absorb everything. We’re used to talking; we’re not used to listening. We’re just used to doing; we’re not used to focusing on certain aspects.
Those were probably the hardest things for me to do.
4. How did your institution support you through those challenges and through your education process toward your credential?
Seneca had some great, great support systems. They have learning centers, they have tutoring; they had one-on-one sessions where managerial accounting wasn’t a very strong background of mine [and] I got some extra supports there. Student Services has some great things. They actually went through and taught me how to learn. They gave me some quick tips. They gave me some knowledge on how to index. A lot of things changed since I went to school. … They have [a] first-year student experience [course], they have career services and they have accommodation for people for exams where you get a little bit more time and the rooms are quiet. They have a whole bunch of different things.
It’s just knowing who to talk to when you go in. … Knowing that as long as you’re open — and say, “Okay, I’m having a problem,” — they are there to help. Everybody’s so willing to help; that’s what I really loved about it. … It made it a lot easier for me to put up my hand and say, “Hey, I’m having a problem,” and everybody just came forward and went, “Hey, we’re here to help.”
5. Based on your experience, were there any areas the institution could have improved in terms of helping you earn your credential or degree?
For older students — … I’m over 40 — it was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. It was the best experience that ever happened to me. I’ve learned so much. I gained a lot from it. …
I did a lot on my own and did put my hand up, but a lot of people aren’t like that. They’re afraid; they think people are going to think, “I’m not smart,” or they are going to think their self-confidence is going to be hurt.
But if someone just said, “Here is a package and here is what the school offers and this is how you go about it and this is where you make appointments and these are the things that we have to offer,” I think that would make people feel a little better about using the tools and using the system a lot better.
So, I think that would really help the education system a lot and people who do go back to school after a certain age … I think that would help them quite a bit.
6. Was there any kind of orientation program in place when you enrolled to give you a sense of what your day-to-day life would be like; comparing your life as a working professional to your life as an adult student?
The professors were very honest. Because I did an intense course, they said, “The first semester is going to kill you. You’re going to be very tired.”
When you’re used to working eight-plus hours a day, you think, “This is nothing.” But it’s different; it’s a mental tired, not a physical tired.
You’re not used to going home and studying and doing research papers and you’re regurgitating and it’s study groups. You’re on a different level. Sure, you have to play nice when you’re at work, but it’s different when you’re in a student atmosphere. It was funny because we get to pick and choose our partners for papers and for projects — you don’t get to do that at work.
Some of it was fun, some of it was interesting. But it can very surreal. It was a lot to get used to. We did get a day off, but on your days off you’re either sleeping or doing research at the library. It’s far different from working and it’s hard to get used [to it]. …
We didn’t get any rest for the first semester. It was crazy and I was begging to go back to work.
7. Is there anything you’d like to add about your experience as an adult enrolling in higher education, and the value of returning to the academy when it comes to finding work in the new labor marketplace?
School has taught me that you’re always learning. As an adult and a person who’s been working for 20, 25 years, we get stuck.
With the boomers retiring and the new kids coming up and taking all those jobs, we’re never secure.
We have to adapt to the changes in this world and we have to open our minds. As much as we hate change, it happens around us and we have to bend, and if we don’t come up with innovative ways to keep our jobs and to make our jobs fun and to impress the people we work for, then we’re going to end up just fading away.
So I still take courses — not full time — but … I still keep in touch with that world and I don’t think that I will ever lose touch with that world. It’s just so important.
I would invite anybody to take a nighttime course, just to keep it up. I know it’s tough and it takes a lot of time, but it’s so worth it. Even if it’s with an association through work, or if it’s not with a public school, or whether it’s very directed to what you do for a living: it’s just so important to keep your mind open and your mind going.
Author Perspective: Student