After earning a degree at U of T, it was Humber that set Larysa Woloszansky on a path to working there.
It was a mild fall morning when I headed downtown to meet Larysa at her Toronto office. Though I live in Ajax now, I used to live in Little Italy not far from U of T. Still, Larysa knew I was taking transit into the city and sent clear directions during our email exchanges.
When I arrived at Larysa’s office I called her extension and she invited me up to the top floor. It was a short walk, but she was already at the top of the stairs, holding the door open and gesturing for me to come in, “Hey Andrew, glad you made it! I’m sorry you had to travel so far to get here.”
Not much time was spent lingering around before Larysa took the reins and led us to a quieter space to chat. She briefly considered a small room with pink walls. “We call this the Pepto Bismol room, for obvious reasons. But you know what? There’s kind of an echo in here. I’ve got a better spot we can use.”
We headed to the end of the hall to an area with a few secluded meeting rooms. They were named after different islands in the Caribbean. “We use these rooms whenever we need extra privacy for an important phone call or meeting, usually when we’re handling crisis communications or issues management,” Larysa explained as she opened the door to Jamaica.
As we settled into our seats she confessed her career involves talking about other people, and promoting their stories, so she wasn’t used to being at the other end of the conversation, “It’s a little weird because I rarely talk about myself.”
Larysa got comfortable in her chair, with one leg folded in front of her lap. She held her navy blue U of T coffee mug atop her calf while grasping its handle to keep it balanced. I asked her to tell me about her time studying PR at Humber before we dove into her professional career.
She told me it all started while wrapping up her final year studying International Relations at U of T. She didn’t have a career choice in mind and she got to talking with her best friend about ideas. Her friend, who was studying advertising at Humber, tried to narrow down the possibilities by asking what she was best at. “Well, I’m good at building relationships,” Larysa realized. So her friend suggested she look into the Public Relations postgraduate program at Humber.
“I didn’t really know what public relations was and once you get into this industry, you realize that nobody understands what communications people or PR people actually do. They say ‘Oh, so it’s like advertising? Or it’s like marketing?’ or they reference Thank You For Smoking or something.”
That made me laugh. As a PR student myself, I could relate. Larysa explained even though she wasn’t sure what PR was at the time, she was curious. So she did some research into the program and into the industry, “I saw that I could do government relations, corporate affairs, issues management. That kind of stuff appealed to me about the program.”
Larysa applied to the program and endured the thorough admissions process that included a face-to-face interview. She was accepted and she began studying in the fall of 2004. Looking back on the experience, Larysa described the Humber program as “intense.” But she appreciated that Humber trained her for a specific career while ushering her into the professional job market.
I mentioned that as a current student in the PR diploma program, I’ve been told many times that Humber has the best reputation in the industry and that I will have an advantage when applying for jobs after graduation. I asked Larysa if those statements rang true for her and she confirmed Humber really does have an edge in the industry. “In my experience working at a few different PR shops across the country, people value Humber very much in comparison to other schools. Seneca does PR, Sheridan does PR, Centennial does PR, but not like Humber.”
I pressed a little further and asked her what she thought Humber does specifically to stand out from other schools. “Humber has really good instructors who stay current in the industry and keep in touch with students. They have them on LinkedIn, they check in with them, they go to industry events and you’ll run into them at certain functions. The fact that they maintain relationships with students and employers—I feel like that makes them stand out.”
Larysa’s also had experience working directly with interns and new grads from the school, “I’ve hired interns from Humber and from other schools. Overall those from Humber seem better prepared. You can tell they’ve had practical, hands-on experience. It makes all the difference.”
She did offer up an important caveat to becoming successful though: relying on your education or credential alone is not enough. To really shine, she believes you’ve got to go beyond the classroom and make things happen for yourself. She stressed the importance of networking and how it can determine whether you even become employed at all.
“I love my job. I’ve never loved my job. I’ll be honest, I’ve liked my jobs here and there but I love this job.”
Larysa interned at a now-defunct organization that didn’t offer her a job after she graduated, so she hunted for her first real PR role. While her search included plenty of interviews, they didn’t lead to any job offers. “Every single person in my class got hired except for me. And it was soul destroying.” She was disillusioned. There she was, a graduate of the most prestigious university and the most renowned college, but she was still unemployed. It didn’t make sense.
Although she felt discouraged, Larysa found the will to keep trying. She went back to one of her Humber professors for advice, and that professor told her to hone in on agency jobs. So Larysa started to network by reaching out to a woman from Hill & Knowlton Strategies who had been a guest speaker in one of her classes. “I talked to her and she was like, ‘You should meet this other person for coffee’ and I’m like alright, I’m meeting this person for coffee. That person was like, ‘You should meet THIS person for coffee’. I started meeting all of these people for coffees like it was my full-time job. I had to. I had to network.”
For the first couple of months after graduating from Humber, she didn’t land a job. But then, because of all the networking she had done, she suddenly had four job offers come through at the same time. “It was amazing. Things went from drought to flood, just like that,” she said.
Fast forward a little more than 10 years into her career, and Larysa landed her current role working in media relations at U of T. “They really wanted someone to tell the stories around the university and I love this university. I went to school here. Some of my professors are still here and I work with them now, which is really cool.”
Once we dove into the topic of working at U of T, Larysa became excited. I could tell she was happy about where she landed. “I love my job. I’ve never loved my job. I’ll be honest, I’ve liked my jobs here and there but I love this job. I get to share stories about a new breakthrough in cancer research, or a discovery about why certain people have autism, or a lesson in structural engineering to explain why a bridge collapsed.”
The morning work routine for Larysa, and her team is impressive. They operate like a well-oiled media machine poised to place U of T in the news by the time most of us are just starting our work day. “By 8:00 a.m., my colleague and I determine what news is breaking. We’ve read the papers and we have major news channels running on our office TV. Next we need to determine what people are going to be talking about today. Once we’ve done that, we identify which professors we have that can speak on a relevant topic, then we contact them and ask, ‘Are you available today to talk to the press if we put you forward?’. They say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If it’s, ‘Yes’ we put them forward.”
As Larysa explained, I was on the edge of my seat. I’ve rarely heard of work executed this well and to have her lay it all out for me in detail was a privilege. “We put together a curated list of about 10 to 15 people that can talk about the topics of the day. By 10:00 a.m. every day, that list is in the inbox of every single producer and editor in this city.”
Larysa explained that even though this is something she works on every day, it’s no easy task. It’s a constant challenge, but one she finds rewarding. Then, with a proud smile on her face, she told me her team has actually won a global award for their outstanding work with what’s been dubbed, U of T’s Breaking News Experts.
She recognized that part of her success in her role has been thanks to the many amazing university faculty and staff she’s worked with to produce news stories. “I work with really smart people. I work with people who are the top political scientists involved in Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. I work with people who have made discoveries that changed the face of medicine. I work with forensic experts who’ve been involved in the grimmest cases you could think of.”
Having learned of Larysa’s impressive accomplishments, I asked what advice she had for graduating Humber students. “Make a list of five companies that you want to work for, go to their websites, find the people in charge, and go on an informational interview with them. Get to know who they are and ask them questions about their job. You might realize that the company isn’t for you or sometimes you might realize that yes, that company is actually really cool.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Want to hear a current student’s story? Read what it’s like to be a transgender student in 2018.