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Shirley Zhang

Orderly Room Second-in-Command (OR 2IC)
Canadian Forces - Department of National Defence in Montreal, Quebec

Shirley Zhang continuously looks for ways to integrate interdisciplinary practices into public service. Her curiosity is reflected in her undergraduate studies (Bachelors of Arts and Science at McGill University) in Geography, Environment, and International Development Studies. Zhang took advantage of several unique opportunities during her undergraduate education, fully exploring her passions while developing a diverse research-oriented skill set. Zhang currently serves as the Orderly Room Second-in-command at a Primary Reserve unit within the Canadian Forces.

1. Can you describe your career path since graduation?

I have always been committed to a career in public service – this passion was fostered through my participation in city youth council and British Columbia Youth Parliament, as well as the Royal Canadian Army Cadets. During my second year of university, I made the decision to enlist in the Canadian Forces, both fulfilling my obligation to our country as well as opening myself up to professional opportunities in public service. By the time I graduated from McGill, I knew that this area was right for me. I’ve since been employed full-time at a Primary Reserve unit, where my responsibilities have included overseeing operational strategy for the 2016-2017 Arctic Response Company Group as well as performing financial management and personnel support services.

2. How do you incorporate geography into your work?

The most valuable takeaway from my geography studies was the ability to break down a complex issue into distinct parts and examine each piece from multiple perspectives. Our field often encourages us to examine an issue from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences points of views, each requiring a different frame of mind to find a solution. Whether I am resolving logistics issues for an Arctic expedition, coordinating resources within our regiment, or embarking on a training mission, I am always grateful to have been exposed to this way of thinking.

Additionally, my Indigenous studies coursework helped when embarking on an Arctic expedition this past winter. Learning the customs of the Inuit and studying their relationship with the surrounding ecosystem informed my interactions during our stay, and aided in forging a strong and sustainable rapport.

3. Looking back, what would you have done differently?


I would have started exploring tangible research opportunities much earlier – it was by far the greatest learning experience during my four years at McGill. Theory and practice are often two different beasts, so the ability to directly engage through fieldwork gave me a definite edge when joining the Canadian Forces full-time. I have since had to travel to several remote locations for training and operations, and having previous research experience in similar environments made the acclimation process much easier.


4. Do you have any advice for students wishing to attain a fulfilling career in geography?


Explore all the resources available to you and do not hesitate to pick someone’s brain over coffee. It is sometimes easy to get bogged down and lose perspective of your passion – focus on problems you care about, and devote your efforts towards exploring them thoroughly. 


I also cannot understate the importance of networking – you never know where a conversation can take you. Developing the confidence to reach out to researchers and professionals you admire is a crucial skill that will help your personal development and professional growth.

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