Alumnus of the Month - Sarah Stoodley

Sarah Stoodley is Senior Digital Manager at RSA Canada (Royal Sun Alliance), focusing primarily on Johnson Insurance, RSA’s main Canadian personal insurance brand. In this role Sarah is responsible for development and implementation of tools and capabilities that customers use to manage their insurance online. Prior to returning to Canada, Sarah lived and worked in the UK, where she was a consultant with digital strategy agency UbaGlu. In that role Sarah helped shape digital strategies for King’s College London, David Lloyd Leisure and Reckitt Benckiser. She was also Digital Marketing Manager for Pamoja Education, an international education company in Oxford, that develops and delivers online courses for the International Baccalaureate. Before moving to the UK she received one of three TD Meloche Monnex Fellowships, which opened the door to a role working for the marketing and communications department at Memorial.

In her spare time Sarah is a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and is currently helping the East Coast Trail Association with the development of their new website.

How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your degree?

It was an easy decision, I was working at Memorial in the marketing and communications department, so it made sense to study at Memorial as well. My schedule was flexible so I was able to attend classes during my lunch break and in the evenings.

Do any particular memories stand out from your time here as student?

My favourite memories are related to MUCEP jobs I had. I typically work very independently, but I remember having a MUCEP one semester as coordinator of parent orientation. It had been a hectic day helping to do last minute preparations for student orientation and I realized that I had a long night ahead of me finishing all my to-dos for parent orientation starting the next day. I was searching for a cart to move some tables when 10 of the other volunteers/MUCEP students (you know who you are) showed up to help. I was very touched that after a very long week they showed up without having been asked, to help me. I had never expected the extra help, what I thought was going to take me 4 or 5 hours to do late at night, turned into 45 minutes with the help of the awesome team who then became close friends for the duration of my studies. I would encourage all students to seek on-campus employment, it’s a great way to meet friends.

I’d also like to call out Dr. Alex Marland as a fantastic and supportive masters supervisor. I was finishing my thesis while living in the UK and Dr. Marland made time to see me during a conference he was attending a few hours away. Dr. Marland also used unconventional teaching tactics to demonstrate the importance of brevity and precision in writing, skills that I use regularly.

What drew you to study political science?

I have always been interested in government and policy, especially after my exchange to The Netherlands, and as an undergrad, I took all my electives in political science. I was working at Memorial University in the marketing department after graduation and I knew I wanted to continue my studies, but that I needed a break from business coursework. I applied for, and thankfully was accepted to the political science masters program and thoroughly enjoyed it.

How does your background in political science inform your work in the digital space?

The skills and approaches that I learned completing my masters in political science help me in my work life every day. Analyzing policies, understanding implications of legislature, looking at trends in behaviour and testing hypothesis’ are all skills that I use in my day job. One particular course on women and politics that I took with Dr. Amanda Bittner was particularly impactful. I think about and use lessons from the coursework daily when I craft emails, think about my body language in meetings and evaluate resumes of potential new hires.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?

When I was in high school I was involved in youth parliament and at one point met Premier Williams when he was Leader of the Opposition. I remember the advice he gave us, not to let anyone from Toronto make us feel as though we weren’t as smart or capable as they were. I remember thinking at the time that he was crazy - of course people from Toronto were smarter than we were. A decade later I was in Oxford working for an international online education company, alongside peers who attended Oxford and Cambridge. I had a lightbulb moment when I realized that he was right. That I was just as (or more) intelligent and capable as colleagues from top global universities, but for some reason had grown up I thinking otherwise. This insight has given me a huge amount of confidence, has changed my perception of work and has had a significant impact on my career.

You spent time working in the UK after university – how does working there compare to working here in terms of expectations, lifestyle, etc.

I would say that working in the UK is generally similar to working in Canada, but finding a job was a different experience. Growing up in Grand Falls-Windsor, I thought St. John’s was a big pond, but it’s a puddle compared to London. When I moved there it initially took me six months to find a job and in that time I did all sorts of unpaid (free) work, including working in PR for Harrods, and writing a blog for a leading marketing agency. There are so many people applying for so many jobs, that job seekers often have to work unpaid before getting an interview. I remember being offered one unpaid role in a marketing agency, but I had to turn it down because I already had two concurrent unpaid roles.

What’s a typical day like for you at Johnson Inc.?

My role consists of challenging the status quo, developing and implementing new online tools, and building capabilities for insurance customers. I do a lot of stakeholder management to understand business needs and work with a team of digital specialists to create solutions that will be easy for customers to use. Evolving how a large and established organization does business, particularly in a new channel is very challenging. I always make time to ensure the small but important details have been taken care of, which one of my colleagues refers to as “painting behind the radiators”.
I usually prepare for each day the evening before. I spend most of my day on conference calls with teams across Canada and the UK, so I usually have a coffee and discuss tactics with my leader and catch up on any morning emails from 9-10:30. I have back-to-back meetings and calls from 10:30-4:30, I then respond to a few more emails before heading home and picking it up later in the evening to prepare for any significant meetings the next day, usually while I’m watching something on Netflix. It’s challenging but I love it.

What has your biggest professional challenge been to date?

My biggest professional challenge so far was changing how customer service email is managed, tracked and optimized across our Canadian business. From start to finish in six months, we designed and implemented a solution under budget and delivered substantial efficiencies and insight to the business and while providing more responsive and personal service to customers.

In a perfect world, what initiative (building, service, cultural offering, etc.) would you add to Newfoundland and Labrador to make it a better place?

In a perfect world I would put programs in place to make travel more accessible for students in schools. I believe that travel provides a rich educational experience, it lights a spark of potential and of scale. While many would leave to travel, most would return and I believe Newfoundland and Labrador would be greater for it.

In what ways has studying humanities/social sciences affected your world view? What do you say to those who question the value of an arts degree?

I strongly believe that there is value in pursuing anything you are passionate about. Unless you have a definite path in mind like nursing or teaching, the longer you are out of your degree the less it matters what you studied. Being motivated, hard working, innovative, creative and being able to solve problems are much more employable skills (that you learn in University), and having a unique background allows you to understand and solve problems in a different way.

I recently presented to the chair of the board of our Canadian business, at the end of the presentation he asked me what my background was. I had already done my research (the night before) and knew that he had a masters in political science so I was confident in highlighting that experience. Thanks to Google and LinkedIn you can verify the background of leaders in any field and you can see how many have studied humanities and social sciences, as they have in the company that I work for.

What advice would you give a student who is unsure of what to study?

My advice would be to pick something that looks interesting to you, and if you’re getting a lot of pressure to pursue a field that isn’t of interest to you, then talk to someone about it. I was a resident advisor and academic don in Paton College and spent many nights with peers who were upset and afraid to tell their parents they didn’t want to be a (insert profession here). I would also recommend that everyone should take a women in politics course (with Dr. Bittner) if they can.

What’s your favourite place to visit?

My favourite place to visit is Amsterdam. I did an exchange there as an undergrad. Maybe because it was the first significant international place I visited, or maybe it’s the beautiful canals and the fact that everyone rides to work and school on bicycles, but Amsterdam remains my dream city. I’ve been there twice since and I don’t think I’ll ever feel satiated.

What are you reading and listening to, looking at these days?

My partner is from the UK and we were very fortunate to have been able to spend the holidays there with his family. One of my favourite things to do there is to read the newspaper, I really miss being able to buy a national or international paper to read on the weekend. My favourite ritual while in the UK is going to the local corner store first thing in the morning and getting The Guardian, The Financial Times and The Independent. I have to go early because there are only ever one or two copies of each in the local corner store. I cut out all the digital/technology articles and post them on a bulletin board outside my office.

What are you most looking forward to within the next year?

In the next year I’m looking forward to some new challenging projects at work, I’m hoping to start a podcast, and I’m planning to apply for another masters.

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