Teenagers are often peppered with questions by well-meaning adults asking what they want to do when they grow up. Some have a ready answer. More often they respond with a shrug, or a shy, “I don’t know.”
Being unsure is not only normal but increasingly likely. In a world where whole categories of jobs are being disrupted by artificial intelligence, outsourcing and paradigm-shifting innovations, and millions of people work in industries that didn’t exist a decade ago, the career opportunities of the future are ever-changing, and in some cases, don’t even exist yet.
According to Donna Naufal Moffatt, director of academic counselling at Ottawa-area Elmwood, an independent all-girls school, in this rapidly changing world it’s no longer enough for students to pick a career. Success lies in finding your niche. And Elmwood’s unique university counselling process allows girls to do just that.
Naufal Moffatt begins a one-on-one process with girls in early high school that helps them start to build a vision of their future that is not just based on a single career pathway. The process begins with conversations and vision boards to help girls become more aware of their strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and interests, and gradually becomes more specific as they approach graduation.
While she does talk about career opportunities with each individual student, Naufal Moffatt says she begins by encouraging them to ask themselves big questions like: Where do I fit in this world? What inspires me? What change do I want to see? How do I want to contribute?
“I love it when students say they have no idea what they want to do because I think that’s the best place to be. They aren’t rigid in an idea of what they want to become. They have the most flexibility to explore options,” Naufal Moffatt says. “Being confused or uncertain is not a bad thing, it is actually a really great thing from my perspective.”
With more than 25 years of teaching experience (22 years at Elmwood), Naufal Moffatt now works full time as the school’s academic and university counsellor, helping students identify what they want to accomplish and who they want to become when they leave Elmwood. She explores various ways a student can achieve their future goals by presenting programs and pathways that will support skills development and growth as a whole person.
Once they have reflected on the big questions, she then helps steer them toward universities, programs and scholarship opportunities that align with their personal values and goals, and supports students as they wade through the sea of application forms. She also helps students understand the academic prerequisites for programs that interest them, including any required testing for international programs.
Naufal Moffatt says the vast majority of Elmwood students are able to qualify for academic scholarships based on grades alone, which they get automatically when they are accepted to a university. But she also helps identify other opportunities for merit scholarships or financial aid for students, including named scholarships in students’ top-ranked universities, prestigious foundation scholarships and athletic scholarships. The results are impressive — this year’s graduating class of 32 received $1.83 million in scholarship offers with an average per graduate of more than $57,000. Unlike some schools, Elmwood doesn’t limit how many applications students can request help with; they can ask for help to apply to as many scholarships and programs as they wish.
Naufal Moffatt says a key takeaway for many students is that they don’t necessarily have to have it all figured out by the time they turn 18.
“The path isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more like pieces of a puzzle coming together,” she says. “The more options they have, and the more diverse and open they are, the better off they are.”
According to Zaina Khan, a Grade 12 student at Elmwood, the school’s approach helped her feel more confident in her vision of what she wanted to do after graduation.
Khan ended up applying to several programs that reflected her diverse academic interests. After sifting through the offers from universities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), business, science, and interdisciplinary arts, she has narrowed the choice down to two options: a competitive architecture program at McGill, and a dual degree program at Western in engineering and business administration. Khan has also applied for several scholarships, which could influence her final decision on a university.
“Ms. Naufal Moffatt said when I’m in doubt, think about what makes me tick,” Khan says. “What is it at the heart of all of this that really inspires me and keeps me engaged, and fuels what I want to do in this world?”
Class of 2019 grad Jaida Wilson, who recently accepted an offer in the University of Waterloo’s exceptionally competitive environmental engineering program, also credits Elmwood’s uniquely supportive approach with helping her identify her area of focus in post-secondary studies.
“I feel the path I’m going down really suits me and it’s what I want to do,” Wilson says. “Ms. Naufal Moffatt really helps us to understand both ourselves and the programs we’re applying to, so we know where we’re going and we have a lot of confidence in our path.”