The skills that come out of your history degree prepare you for the modern discipline of thinking. It’s a modern skill set, not as the title suggests, outdated or old.
So, just how does a history degree prepare you for handling billions of dollars on behalf of the taxpayers of British Columbia, and then for the customers of the biggest credit union in Canada? Actually, quite well. Take for example Tamara Vrooman, MA ’94, BC’s former deputy finance minister and now chief executive officer of Vancity credit union.
Vrooman recently visited a group of history students in her old department in the Clearihue Building on the day that she would formally receive the UVic Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumni Award. She sat perched on a desk in front of the classroom and talked for an hour about her eight years at UVic and her subsequent, and somewhat unorthodox, career path into the world of finance.
She claims she wasn’t a great student, although she had strong grades in high school and in social science courses at UVic—the ones that offered lots of old exams to study and memorize, she says, with a smile. The first time she had to write a history paper proved much more difficult. “You have to think on your own,” she says. “That actually was what motivated me to get an MA.”
Born in Victoria and raised in Kamloops, like many small-town BC students, Vrooman picked UVic over the big-city campuses. Her honours essay was on the activity of BC women outside of domestic life and her MA thesis was about the compulsory sterilization of young women at BC’s Industrial School for Girls, an example of now-discredited theories of eugenics that were prominent a century ago.
From her master’s research grew an interest in finding out how the government of the day made its decision to sterilize women. That interest in policy making led her to the finance ministry, the central department of government.
But Vrooman was only hired after her second try. A member of her first interview panel told her they all knew about the reputation of arts students: “We’re afraid you can’t add.”
“I was quite bummed out by that, to use that technical term,” she says.
Vrooman returned to UVic for a year in the School of Public Administration and took every statistics and economics course she could, then went back to the ministry for a second job interview, which was successful. The numbers courses got her in the door—“It wasn’t quite called mailroom clerk, but it was quite low”—but Vrooman credits the skills honed by the study of history for her rapid rise through the ranks at finance.
She developed a reputation for explaining complicated subjects. “I was able to take fairly complex financial concepts and explain them to cabinet ministers.”
Tell a story, convince others, document your facts, be clear what your opinion is—these skills were learned studying history at UVic, and she says, they’re useful in any position of leadership, in business or the public service.
“It’s a key way you convince a premier to implement, or not, a new initiative.“
As deputy in finance from 2004 to 2007 under finance minister Carole Taylor, Vrooman helped the province reach triple-A credit rating. “I’m pretty proud of that. It translated into real value.” She also helped Taylor deliver long-term collective agreements with BC’s public sector unions.
When it comes time to ask about career advice, one student wonders about the best way to make the transition from academe to public service.
Maybe studying history doesn’t prepare for “how to market yourself,” Vrooman says. “Think about what it is your academic training prepares you for. What are you serious about?”
Is a career in government “something you do because you can’t do anything else, which is the stereotype?” In fact, the opposite was her experience. “Some of the brightest people I have met work for the public service.”
Another student asks: what’s the best arena to achieve results, business or government? It’s easier and less complicated in business, she says, “but the results you achieve in government, when you achieve them, are greater, more relevant.”
She’s convinced there is a place in business for liberal arts students. “We still need people who know how to think.” And history students aren’t the only non-business students who can find fulfillment in the private sector. She says that one of Vancity’s best thinkers is a theatre grad.
He’s helping Vancity use social media like YouTube and Facebook. Who better, Vrooman says, than a theatre student to figure out “how to engage an audience, how to get an audience to engage with you. The skills that come out of your history degree prepare you for the modern discipline of thinking. It’s a modern skill set, not as the title suggests, outdated or old.”
Dressed in a grey pinstripe pantsuit and turquoise blouse, Vrooman projects confidence, but surprisingly credits another intangible for what followed her time at UVic. “It’s not skill, it’s luck. Good fortune is a huge part of it.”
The lucky streak has continued at Vancity, where she was named CEO in 2007. It reported a 43-per-cent increase in profits last year, on what Vrooman told the Vancouver Sun was a renewed “focus on the basics of banking, focus on retail and member deposits.”
She’s proud of Vancity’s beginnings, when half a dozen people sitting around a kitchen table in 1946 each contributed $20 to start the credit union. Today, there are 400,000 members and a shiny high-rise headquarters tower beside the SkyTrain line in Vancouver.
The location is significant, she says, right on Main Street, the dividing line between East Van and the city’s more prosperous west side. And she’s proud of the fact it was the first financial institution to lend women money in their own right, without having a husband or father co-sign the loan, long before the banks.
Vrooman is keen to offer a hand to anyone who wants her advice. She wrote her e-mail address and phone number on the blackboard and invited students to call. “I’m not a big scary person.”
It might take a week or two to get back but she promised, anyone who calls gets a face-to-face talk. And that’s her final bit of advice. Identify the important decision-makers in the organization that you want to work for, ask their advice. Go right to the top, says Vrooman.
“Don’t underestimate the value of a cold call. You have no place in business if you can’t make at least one cold call.”
History and the Bottom Line | 2