The benefits of being a “pandemic Saltire Scholar”

Have you ever heard that old Yiddish phrase, “Men tracht und Gott lacht,” which roughly translates to, “Man makes plans and God laughs?”

Two years ago, pre-world-stopping-global pandemic, I had a lot of Big Plans. I didn’t find any roles related to my language’s degree in the first round of Saltire applications, so I only applied to the most relevant opportunities I could find. As is the experience of most Scholars at first, I was rejected, the only feedback being that my experience was irrelevant. After that, I was convinced it would be impossible: there were no advertisements for a translator or a language teacher, which I had experience of. It was only after the world was turned on its head that I began to see things differently.

Pre-2020, hardly any of us had experience of working remotely. I can’t deny that I had doubts about virtual working: our Wi-Fi is frequently unstable, audio and video aren’t always clear, and I imagined it would be ineffective connecting with complete strangers through a screen. For a time, I thought it would be better to just give up on finishing my degree until we could resume in-person classes. However, I didn’t really have a choice: I would have nothing else to do until the pandemic ended, and we didn’t know when that would be.

Over the first few months, two types of companies emerged: those that could adapt to change, and those that could not. It didn’t matter if you were a tech wiz or still wrote everything by hand (like me), Gen Z or Gen X: what mattered was your perspective. Those who were able to accept change and step outside of their comfort zone were able to keep the cogs turning.

The most adaptable companies discovered that there were significant benefits to being virtual: cutting costs, better accessibility for people with disabilities, less commute time and vehicle emissions… the list goes on. Many have decided to keep flexible work in the future because of this, whilst others are stuck functioning at half capacity, simply waiting for the world to return to how it used to be. Which, in my opinion, it never will.

It was not about anyone’s previous experience, rather, their attitude.

Before the pandemic, I hadn’t realised yet what “transferable skills” really meant. I thought it meant that if I could speak Spanish then I could speak Spanish in lots of different jobs, but even that is too narrow a definition. Now, when I think of this concept, one word comes to mind. A skill that works in every single profession you can think of. A skill that is guaranteed to help you do a great job wherever you go: flexibility.

I realised this around the time when my role with the Scottish Affairs Office came up. It’s true I have no experience with what I’m doing, and I’m certain any Saltire Scholar could have done this job to an excellent standard, but what set me apart was that I hold the same values as the organisation I am working with. I hadn’t even considered it previously, but one of the reasons why I love travel and learning languages is because I care about Scotland and want to share our little country with the whole world. So much so, I even graduated in a kilt! I chose languages as my degree because I thrive on discovering new cultures and ways of life, so being able to work with a team in Canada and learn about everything, from tourism to climate change policy, was a perfect fit.

To be frank, the internships I applied to in the beginning, I applied to because I wanted a Saltire internship. When it came to the role I secured in the end, I wanted to do the job.

I’m supposed to be using this last blog to reflect on my initial goals for the internship and how my experience matched up to my expectations, but, as I often do, I’m going to go a bit rogue here. I found that coming into this role with an open mind and genuine interest for the work the Scottish Affairs Office does was enough, and instead I have been able to fulfil more ambitions that I could not have planned for six months ago. The last year and a half of a pandemic has taught me to be incredibly flexible, and as patient as my dog waiting for food to fall under the dinner table. You cannot predict what will happen, or where your aspirations may take you, but the only thing you can know for sure is what you love. If you can take your passion into every interview, without holding back on expressing it, you will end up where you need to be.

Even if you need to wait 18 months for it.

Being a Saltire Scholar is more than simply writing down a “to do” list and ticking it off day in and day out: it means getting to the heart of the role. It means looking past the industry and “preferred experience” on the job advertisement and understanding that what the employer is looking for is someone who has the same vision for the world as they do, whether it’s through engineering, medicine, marketing, or art is inconsequential.

At the beginning of this year, I was fixated on studying abroad after my degree. I knew the course and programme I was going to apply for. Now, I am open to considering any options that are flung my way, without presuming a single one of them is going to work out.

So, you want to know what my plans are for the future? Please, plans are so 2019.

Written by: Lisa Ireland, University of St Andrews, Scottish Affairs Office Intern, Scottish Government, Ottawa (virtual)
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