For her grade 12 year, Sheryl Karras packed her bags and traded Salmon Arm for Japan, where she lived with a family, went to school and immersed herself in the culture.
Japan in the early 1980s was a pretty foreign place for someone coming from a small town in BC, Karras says. “Japanese culture is refined; there is precision in its rituals. Being in another country, you learn so much about your own culture and recognize that the world is a pretty small place.”
The experience abroad sparked Karras’s interest in international affairs and became the catalyst for her career development. Today, she is director of administration of UVic’s Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) program at the Peter B. Gustavson School of Business. The job involves guiding the operations of the program to ensure that students are enrolled, teaching faculty are in place, and the programming is achieving its overarching goals.
International experience is a cornerstone of the BCom program, which makes it a great fit for Karras. Founded in 1990, the program offers the largest international business exchange program in Canada. When it was being developed, Karras says, stakeholders wanted the school to have a niche, to differentiate it from commerce programs at other research institutions. “It was an opportunity to think differently,” she says.
Today, students in the international business specialization at UVic can choose from among 91 universities for their international study term. Only one of these is located in an English-speaking country—Singapore; all the others are in non-English-speaking countries in South America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
“As a business school, we should be engaging students in that global perspective,” Karras says, noting that many undergraduate students have not had the opportunity to travel outside of North America. “We don’t expect all of our students to work overseas, but chances are they will have some connection with an international client or business in their careers.”
A NEW ADVENTURE
Karras joined the Gustavson School of Business in 2000. She worked as an admissions officer and international student advisor before moving up to her current position, which she’s held since 2014. Prior to this, every step of Karras’s career involved an element of international relations. Inspired by her year abroad in high school, she studied international relations at UBC, later earning a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Victoria. Along the way, she gained work experience at the Japan Pavillion during Expo 86 and at private language schools in Victoria and Vancouver, which gave her the opportunity to travel to Japan several times. These experiences eventually led Karras and her husband to return to Salmon Arm, where she worked at what was then Okanagan University College in the Continuing Studies program, coordinating short-term, non-degree programs for international students. “Helping people experience international opportunities through the education side was where I felt I would fit nicely,” Karras says, adding that the program “was a way to give others an opportunity to learn about Canadian culture and connect Canada with other cultures.”
A member of the PEA since starting at UVic, Karras is entering her second term as chair of the UVic chapter and has recently joined the Association executive.
“I started as a chapter representative because it was an opportunity to learn a bit about the PEA and to get to know my colleagues a bit better,” Karras says. “Not too long after, I became a member of the executive.”
The PEA helped provide Karras and her family with another international opportunity. Thanks to the collective agreement at the time, she was able to take a sabbatical year in France in 2008/09 with her husband and son, which fulfilled a desire she had been harbouring since high school.
The family spent the year in the town of Bujaleuf, in what was then the region of Limousin, now part of Nouvelle-Aquitaine.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity for my son to have the same experience that I did (when I went to Japan), really embracing and getting to know another culture. We had an amazing year.”
Is Karras done with living abroad? “Oh no,” she says. She hasn’t yet picked her next home away from home, though she admits to being not quite done with France.
For now, however, Karras says she enjoys the creative opportunities her position gives her for building a strong BCom program for students. Several years ago, for example, her interest in reshaping how BCom students develop their “soft skills” led to her introducing a conference on workplace skills for students. The two-day event—now in its 13th year—brings students together with local and international speakers.
“Out of this, students get an opportunity to experience a professional conference, attend workshops delivered by business professionals, and have an opportunity to practice the skills they develop,” Karras says.
Karras also helped introduce a career-preparation component that students complete in their last year. The component is designed to enable each student to identify their professional gaps and work on improving their skills in those areas. “This has been an amazing element to develop as it really helps students connect all that they have learned in the program through their academic and co-op work terms and put their focus on their career preparation,” Karras says.
Ultimately, Karras says, the business industry is looking for people who can think about business and find solutions to problems. To this end, her aim is to ensure that students are well prepared for diverse business environments and that their degree has “put them in a position to go in any direction they want.”