I survived by inventing transition strategies, though I didn't recognize them as such at the time - Michael Cooke
Transitions come in all sizes and shapes. I remember the valedictorian at the George Brown College convocation in 2009 who was graduating from the Dental Hygiene program. She told us that her mother picked her up from her final exam drove her half way home, stopped the car, told her to get out and walk the rest of the way, stopping at every dental office and asking for a job. By the time she got home, she had a job. A fairly abrupt transition for sure, but it worked.
In my case, I graduated from the University of Windsor in 1967 with a degree in French and Spanish and moved to Toulouse, France to purse graduate studies in French literature. I was most excited by the prospect of moving to a new country and getting a chance to use my French language skills. I hadn’t considered that the educational system was completely different, that I wasn’t nearly bilingual as I thought and that I had no experience living outside of my middle class bubble in southern Ontario.
I survived by inventing transition strategies (though I didn’t recognize them as such at the time). They included:
1. Immerse myself in my new environment and grow new roots
I moved into a place with French locals. I volunteered in a local school. I made friends with Martha, the cleaning lady at the school. I made friends with Maël, one of my professors. I watched French TV and went to French movies. It was all foreign to me. It was tiring. Often I made mistakes and people laughed. But people also befriended me and taught me about France from the inside out. This was in contrast to many of the English-speaking students whom I met at the university. They hung out together and spent much of their time looking at France from the outside in. I’m not sure what happened to them, but this year I was back in Toulouse (I go every two years) and spent time with Martha’s children, her grandson and her two great grandchildren. (She died six years ago.) And I spend time with Maël’s sister, his son, his granddaughter and his great granddaughter. The roots I planted in 1967 continue to grow and bear new fruit today.
I spent all my free time walking the neighbourhoods, discovering the outskirts on my moped and travelling with French friends on the weekends and school breaks to wherever they would take me. Thus I learned the fabric of the region, the magic of hundreds of villages that make up each department, the incredible network of roads that tie France together and make it possible to take ten different routes to get to the same place. As I explored, I fell in love with my new home and my new country, even while I missed Canada and my family and friends.
3. Keep a security blanket under the bed.
Of course, I felt homesick from time to time. So I kept a small case of Coca-cola under my bed. Somehow, that reassured me. And when the homesickness struck, I pulled out a bottle, sipped it slowly and re-read one of the precious letters from back home – there was no internet and I was only able to manage two very brief calls home in the two years I lived in France.
This is an old story of transition but it still fits Bridges’ definition cited at the top of Rebecca’s site. I had to let go of my old situation as a successful student with lots of job opportunities in Canada. Then, I had to suffer the confusion of landing in a country where I didn’t understand the language or the culture or the rules of engagement. And then, I had to create new roots, new relationships and in a way, a new public persona.
The payoff has been incalculable. I have two home countries. I speak two languages. I have deep roots in Canada and in France. I went on to work in France and then held at least five positions in my career where French and international experience were key assets in getting the job and succeeding in the role. My five children all speak several languages and by the time they reached 30, they had all travelled extensively and most had lived in other countries.
Michael Cooke was the Vice President Academic at George Brown College from 2000 to 2012. He spent his career in education and international development work. He lived all his life in big cities until he moved to a small farm property north of Kingston where he and his wife grow good food to eat and flowers for the table and eat honey from their beehives. This is a transition story for another blog.
Michael presented the first annual Michael Cooke Student Leadership Awards this year at George Brown College. I was lucky enough to be a recipient of one of these awards. The awards are named in honour of Michael, who served George Brown College in a number of leadership positions over the last 18 years, where he "worked tirelessly to ensure that each student enjoyed a rich and rewarding experience at the college".
As so many of us go through personal and professional transitions throughout our lives, it is truly inspiring to hear of people like Michael who continue to give back by teaching, leading, and mentoring others. This award is a reminder of those who have encouraged and nurtured me along my career journey, and my responsibility to do the same for others who are discovering theirs.