SFU’s Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan leads with optimism

October 24, 2018

By Canadian Immigrant Magazine |

From social work to university leadership, Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan’s career has been defined by a positive outlook, building relationships — and a little bit of adventure

Sobhana Jaya-Madhavan likes to call herself an optimist.

Chatting in a coffee shop at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., Jaya-Madhavan speaks candidly about life, work and her immigration journey to Canada — all of which has led her to her current position as the university’s associate vice-president of external relations.

“Life will always have ups and downs, irrespective if you move to a foreign country or not,” she says. “And I’m an optimist by nature. So, if there’s a problem, there must be a solution. It’s up to each of us to get up, roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

And that’s exactly what she did.

After landing in Canada with her then husband, Jaya-Madhavan had no luck in finding work in her field of social work. So, she did what she had to do: she deleted the master’s degree she earned in India off her resumé and went to a hiring fair at GM Place (now Rogers Arena).

“When we landed here, I presumed I wouldn’t have any problems landing a job as a counsellor, community development worker or social worker. But none of my early [job] applications even got a response. I was shocked and very, very disheartened to say the least,” she admits. “So, I realized I should try to forget about trying to get the perfect social worker job, and just get a job.”

However, when she applied for an entry-level job at the stadium hiring fair, she was told she was overqualified. “I was very blunt and I said, ‘It’s been several weeks since I arrived in Canada and my savings are running out. I am willing to do any job.’”

They hired her as an usher. “And that was my first paid Canadian job — a minimum-wage job,” she says.

While she admits it hurt her self-esteem, she held onto her optimism.

As Jaya-Madhavan sips from her cup of hot tea and nibbles on a savoury scone, she starts to delve into her past, sharing more of her early story and how it’s shaped the positive, confident woman she is today.

From Malaysia to India and Canada
Born in Malaysia to Indian parents, Jaya-Madhavan says she was a tomboy, who wore jeans and rode motorbikes in her small town in Kerala, India. “I was always a bit of a risk-taker,” she says. “People were very critical of my parents for letting me be so independent. They were ahead of their time. My father was a feminist and made me feel like I could do anything, so did my mum.”

At five years old, she was sent to a convent boarding school in southern India. “My parents loved the idea of me pursuing university, and had the forethought and vision to know that I should have a strong English education,” she says.

She studied and worked hard, eventually completing a master’s degree in social work and moving back to Malaysia in 1991. “But I was disappointed to find out that my master’s degree from India was not going to get me a social work job there,” says Jaya-Madhavan, who also didn’t speak fluent Malay.

Her career took a turn into research and publishing for an English-speaking company. “It was interesting work, but in terms of a career, you can’t get much farther from social work than that,” says Jaya-Madhavan, who today still likes to dabble in writing and publishing.

It was 1995 when she made the leap to Canada.

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