Maxine Davidson is no stranger to reinvention.
She’s been a school teacher, an investigative journalist, an administrative co-ordinator, an executive assistant – and at 55, she’s embarking on yet another career path. This willingness to adapt comes from growing up in her home country, Guyana, Ms. Davidson said.
“Where we come from, the struggle is always present,” said Ms. Davidson, who now lives in Ajax, Ont. “You have to find ways to survive. We saw our parents work hard. We saw them continuously reinventing themselves.”
Ms. Davidson’s flexibility was put to the test when she was laid off from her administrative co-ordinator position at Bell Canada in 2008, and she decided to go back to school. (“One of my joys is learning,” said the married mother of two.) She was able to take advantage of Second Career, an Ontario government program that provided up to $28,000 for laid-off Ontarians to retrain.
Because she had worked as an investigative journalist in Guyana, Ms. Davidson was interested in the legal world. She decided to enroll in the one-year law clerk diploma program at triOS College in Oshawa, Ont. As a student in her 50s, Ms. Davidson was one of just a few other mature students in her class.
“I was a bit apprehensive because I wondered, can this old brain still retain?” she said. “I love reading, so the reading part was not the challenge. The challenge was staying up at night, getting the assignments done and that kind of stuff. But I did a lot of late nights and early mornings.”
She was faced with the challenges of her return to school when a family death required her to leave the country.
“I went to my professor and said, ‘I have to go away.’ And he said, ‘Well, unfortunately you have to take your work with you,’ ” Ms. Davidson recalled. “I’m on the plane, I’m doing homework, at the funeral house I’m doing homework. But I got it done.”
On top of her school workload, Ms. Davidson took on a part-time job cleaning offices for extra income, and she says she relied on the support of her husband, friends and family to manage childcare and “keep the bills paid.” She said her two children were particularly supportive of her return to school.
“My kids were excited that there were three students in the house,” she said. “At that time, my son was 13, my daughter almost five years younger. So that was the excitement, we all had backpacks and pens and we were all doing homework.”
Another challenge for Ms. Davidson was the prospect of getting a job in a depressed market once she graduated.
“I was terrified, because I know I’m an older employee and I know how the work force feels about people over 30,” she said.
The younger students in her class were clear about their opinion of older workers hitting the job market, Ms. Davidson said. “Without even batting an eye, they would say they wouldn’t want to hire older people. That was an eye-opener.” She and the few other mature students in the class were very conscious that the person interviewing them for a job would likely be in their 20s.
“Because of my age and …that I’m a minority, and I’m a woman, three strikes against me,” Ms. Davidson said. “But although it was in the back of my mind, I knew I was determined enough to get into the work force.”
Ms. Davidson graduated with honours at 53. “To me that was a big deal.”
As part of her diploma program, Ms. Davidson had been placed into a six-week internship in the legal department at a semiconductor company in Toronto. When she began, the department was still in its infancy and didn’t have a lawyer in place. Upon completion of her internship, the firm offered her a full-time contract.
“[When I started] I had no lawyer to walk me through things, and I was able to organize that department, get their filing system running efficiently. I just took the bull by its horns and went with it. Of course I made mistakes along the way, but everyone was very supportive,” she said.
Ms. Davidson is comfortable in her new career now, but said she can’t even think about the prospect of retirement.
“I don’t have a choice, because we had kids older and so we have an 11-year-old and a 15-year-old,” she said. “There’s no talk about retirement in this part of the world, we have to keep working, that’s the bottom line… And that’s very scary because I’m thinking, at 65 do I want to be getting up and going to a job? But that’s our reality, right?”
Despite her concerns about the future, Ms. Davidson says she’s faced difficult challenges before.
“I was 29 when I came here and I knew nobody, absolutely nobody when I came to this country,” she said. “My mom had an old friend and she called the friend and said, ‘My daughter’s coming to Canada and she doesn’t know anybody, can she stay with you?’ And she came and picked me up at the airport. I had $20 (U.S.), because that’s what we all came with, either a five or a twenty, because it’s so expensive to come.
“And on the way she gave me a white card. She [had taken] a cab to pick me up from the airport and she gave me the cab chit and she told me, ‘When you get a job you have to pay me back.’ So I started life in debt in this country. And most of us, that’s how we start life in this country,” Ms. Davidson said.
“The fact that we came here in the first place, left everybody back in our countries and came here, that was a major change. So I’m not afraid of change.”