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Let me tell you why I’m choosing to take the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery personally, one thing I am doing about it, and why I’m challenging employers in the public policy space to do something as well.

The year was 1987. I had just finished my undergrad at McGill University and was planning on doing a master’s in political science in France. I thought I needed to study in French to improve my second-language skills for vague professional reasons that I would not have been able to articulate. I had no idea what I wanted to do professionally. Maybe I’d go to law school? Or maybe politics? I didn’t really have a clue.

At the last minute (and because of a girl) I decided to stay in Canada and applied to do an M.A. in political science at l’Université de Montréal. My marks were decent but not great, yet I got into one of the best political science programs in the country with no idea what grad school actually meant and with no real plan.

My tuition was about $600.

I had an apartment to myself near campus for $300 a month.

The summer before my program started, I prepared by reading, watching and listening to as much French as I could. I started to sound a lot like Rodger Brulotte, the Expos’ colour commentator.

When I started the program in September, I worked hard. My professors were kind and encouraging and, with their support, I realized I had skills and interests in a whole range of areas that I hadn’t previously known even existed. So I stayed and did my doctorate.

I worked part-time jobs that seemed to magically materialize at the exact time that I needed income — coaching a debate team, helping to produce a PBS current affairs show, translating academic papers from French to English. Without these opportunities, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to continue my program.

How Canada recovers from the pandemic is not simply about collective choices we make through government policy. It is also about how each of us behaves in our communities. If Canada is going to come out the other side of this pandemic stronger, all of us must see ourselves as agents of the recovery.

When I finished my doctoral degree, I started to apply for academic jobs. I didn’t get the first three for which I interviewed. I had about $300 of Bar Mitzvah money left in the bank and was quickly running out of prospects. And then, just when I thought my luck had run out, I landed a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia.

The following year I was hired in a tenure-track job at Queen’s University. And then yada yada other stuff happened over the next 25 years.

At so many junctures, my professional life could have gone seriously off the rails. I wasn’t well connected. I had no professional networks. My family was not political. My parents had not gone to university. I didn’t have people in my life who could help me navigate the professional choices I was facing. A few months without a job may have forced me to take whatever was available.

Beyond getting really lucky on a number of occasions, I see three recurring themes that allowed me to discover what I was good at and what people would pay me to do: 1) Well-funded public programs — good public schools, CEGEPs and universities, and extracurriculars like theatre, journalism and debate that gave me confidence and revealed talents I didn’t know I had; 2) Real kindness from people who did more than they needed to; and 3) A lot of privilege because I fit in easily and older successful men consistently took chances on me, hired me and mentored me.

I know my life today is built on a mix of these factors and I wouldn’t be where I am today without any one of them.

My point is this: How Canada recovers from the pandemic is not simply about collective choices we make through government policy. It is also about how each of us behaves in our communities. If Canada is going to come out the other side of this pandemic stronger, all of us must see ourselves as agents of the recovery.

So I am choosing to take it personally.

Of course, we need governments to improve employment standards legislation, provide paid sick days, modernize Employment Insurance, move forward on a funded system of childcare and reform long-term care.

But as individuals, we also have a role to play in how we recover and what kind of country emerges on the other side. We can make impactful choices about where and how we shop, what we contribute to the community and what we expect of each other.

The last year has been devastating for many young people finishing up college and university. We should all take that personally. We also need to do what we can to address the impacts of the pandemic, which have been so gendered and racialized, and have hit the economically vulnerable the hardest.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to train and mentor so many of the people who are today public policy leaders in Canada. There are dozens of alumni from the Mowat Centre right now doing amazing things. We also built the Ontario Policy Network, designed to create networking opportunities for young policy professionals. Obviously, most of these formal and informal in-person networking sessions have dried up in the current climate.

These young policy professionals play an integral role in shaping our public policy landscape. They are crucial to our long-term future and we would be a worse country without them.

The last year has been devastating for many young people finishing up college and university. We should all take that personally. We also need to do what we can to address the impacts of the pandemic, which have been so gendered and racialized, and have hit the economically vulnerable the hardest.

For me, that means using my professional capital to champion the next generation of policy minds as they enter the workforce at a very challenging time. I am choosing to focus on those graduating here in Toronto who want to pursue careers in public policy, particularly if they lack family or professional networks to help them find employment.

It’s always hard for recent grads to land a first job but this year has been different. For those with family supports that can help bridge them through a weird, choppy period, things will probably be OK. But for others, there is a real risk that some will lose their footing. I know I might have when I was in my 20s. Selling T-shirts at Grateful Dead shows could have been fun for a while, but it was (clearly!) not a viable long-term career choice.

The step from graduation to first job is so important. So I am asking those of us in a position to do so to push the limits of our capacities and hire recent grads for four- or six-month contracts — or more if you can — or hire a student for the summer and give them meaningful professional experience.

I will do so through Ryerson-based initiatives. And I’m challenging others to step up and make a hire that you weren’t sure you were going to make. Or if you were going to make a summer or fall hire, add another position.

For those organizations that choose to hire now, I have little doubt that the returns will be significant. This COVID-19 cohort is smarter, more creative, more resilient and more diverse than any collection of students in my memory.

We have not all been in the same boat during this pandemic. The recovery will require some of us to do more heavy lifting.  So many people have stepped up during the past year to help however they can. Those of us in the public policy community can also do more.

Life is filled with lucky and unlucky breaks, mediated by privilege, circumstance, government programs and community supports. Many young people have sacrificed a lot this year. I don’t want this COVID-19 cohort to have to sacrifice even more as they try to enter the labour market.

Recovery is not something that simply happens to us. It is something we make and shape by our collective and individual choices. And if we want a chance to build back better, we all need to build where we can.

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Matthew Mendelsohn is Visiting Professor at Ryerson University and a co-creator, with the Ryerson Leadership Lab and the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, of First Policy Response.