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I was on track to be an engineer. But I followed my cowgirl dream and it changed my idea of success

Grace Stelmachowicz was taught there was one clear path to success: go to university, get a job in your field, get married, buy a house, and have kids. But life had other plans.

Working at a ranch was tough but rewarding, and redefined what a good life is to me

A smiling woman in a plaid shirt and cowboy hat holds the reins of two draft horses standing on either side of her.

This First Person column is the experience of Grace Stelmachowicz, who lives in Squamish, B.C. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

Growing up, I was taught that there is a clear pathway to success: go to university, get a job in your field, get married, buy a house, and have kids. It's what my parents were taught and then they instilled it in me and my sister. It's what the high school guidance counsellor said was the route to follow to have a good life. It's the path I was following in 2016 as I finished my second year in biomedical engineering at the University of Guelph.

The goal for the four months after the school year finished was to get a summer engineering job to boost my resume. After applying to a couple of jobs in Ontario with no success, I ended up getting a job in Banff National Park at a horseback trail riding outfit. That was decidedly not on track with my plan for success, but I knew I could do the job well because I had spent many childhood years in the saddle roaming around our small family farm in southern Ontario.

A woman sitting bareback on a horse bends down to hug it.

In Banff, I got to explore the craggy Rockies on horseback, living my childhood dream of riding in the mountains. While guiding, I had opportunities to take guests through the pine-filled forests, drive teams of horses pulling a covered wagon along the pristine, blue water of the Bow River and bring visitors to wildflower meadows filled with herds of elk.

A good life doesn't have to be sitting at a desk and climbing the corporate ladder. A good life to me now is appreciating the little things, such as enjoying a quiet morning before a hectic day or taking a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to live in a beautiful place. Conversely, it is also a 16-hour day in the rain and not being able to feel my toes, but knowing that I'll be able to warm them by the fire with a hot cup of tea when I'm done with my shift.

Seasonal work also introduced me to some of the most amazing people in my life.

I met people in their late 20s who were taking a career break. I met people from different countries who were funding their travels by working seasonal jobs. I met people who did this seasonal work full-time, switching between summer and winter jobs, and then travelling in the off-season. All these friends had such a huge impact on how I define what a good life looks like.

Friends forever

These friendships I made as a trail guide are also unlike any others I have made in school or after settling down into my current desk job. As a seasonal worker, you live, breathe and eat with your colleagues 24/7 for several months at a stretch. The bonds created are deep and long-lasting.

Some of my best friends are still people who I worked with in Banff, such as Katie and Phil from Australia, who came to my family home in Utopia, Ont., in 2016 to experience their first Canadian white Christmas. These friends will always have a place to stay with me when they visit, even if it has been years since we met in person. Katie is coming for a visit soon and we are heading out on a winter camping trip. I haven't seen her in years, but I know we will love every moment together in the mountains.

Two men and four women with sweeping brooms stand on the painted circles of a curling rink.

That being said, there is always the hard part of these friendships — the goodbyes. After a couple of intense months together, seasonal workers often go their separate ways. Having to do this multiple times was hard on me mentally. Knowing that there are people I may never see again or that we're separated by a 14-hour flight is scary.

Even so, I wouldn't want it any other way. Seasonal work and the people I met through it taught me that there is more than one path to finding success. They showed me that there are many ways to live in this world and the thing that matters most is being around people who bring goodness and positivity into your life.

It also showed me that a definition of success can change as people continue to grow and evolve. It can mean a break in your career, or it can be a complete career change. It can be anything; it's not always a clearly defined path and that is OK.

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That's what happened to me. After I graduated with my engineering degree, I chose to work at another ranch in the mountains of Cranbrook, B.C., to follow my cowgirl dreams once again — much to my family's chagrin, who thought I was wasting my degree.

Even though it's not what my family had hoped for me, they came around because they saw how seasonal work gave me the opportunity to explore so much of Canada and make incredible friendships. It's different from what they expected, but different does not mean bad.

I currently work in international sales — a job where I get to continue to travel and explore the world. Without my experience in seasonal work, I don't think I would have been confident enough to pursue it.

Working as a guide, I was often outdoors and alone. I had to think on the fly and problem-solve new issues that cropped up. This taught me to trust myself and my abilities. As much as I love my current job, I sometimes still crave to head back to the mountains and the horses to live a simpler life.

Three smiling women stand beneath the sign of a ranch while carrying three laughing women piggyback.

Past me would have been devastated to hear I am not working in the engineering field.

Present me is glad I have followed my dreams and created a life I love.

I am successful in my life plans, and I am glad for the experiences that gave me a changed perspective of what success is. Go out, explore, try new things, and have fun — that's what seasonal work taught me living is really all about.


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