Note: This post originally appeared in the Financial Post. It has been re-posted here with permission.

Melissa Kargiannakis was in the middle of a masters degree in Health Information Science at Western University when she realized something was missing in her education: real-life experience.

Ms. Kargiannakis was a full-time student who worked part-time to pay the bills. There was no room for internships or breaks to explore alternative career paths. So she did the unthinkable: she put her Master’s on pause. With the support and mentoring at Studio Y, an eight-month fully-funded fellowship supported by MaRS, she launched a junior mentorship program linking students at Algoma University in Sault St. Marie with local elementary students. It was a program she designed and implemented.

“University is too structured; they prescribe what you need to know, for what type of test, and it kills creativity,” Ms. Karagiannakis says. “Today the curriculum doesn’t match the job market,” she says. “The Catch-22 is that companies won’t hire you without experience, but you can’t get a job to get experience.”

Increasingly, more and more students are treating their life as a startup venture. Rather than graduating university, polishing their resumé, and applying to companies, entrepreneurial students are going it alone. Studio Y taps into the “hacking your career” movement. It targets youth with an entrepreneurial spirit who are prepared to take a “gap year” to explore alternative ways to direct their own career path, while doing social good. The series of courses and workshops taught at Studio Y teach young people between the ages of 18 and 29 how to network and gain skills they wouldn’t learn in class.

Melissa Kargiannakis
Melissa Kargiannakis during her fellowship at Studio Y.

Ms. Kargiannakis’s project fits Studio Y’s goal to invest in young people seeking to build leadership skills and change society through innovative ideas. She designed a program that offered an alternative approach to school guidance counselors. Young people have to make big decisions in, and arguably before, high school — decisions on courses between different streams that will determine the rest of their future, she says.

Her idea was to pair high school students with university students who could share their experiences picking course streams and specialties early on. She had participated in and witnessed two similar programs at Western and University of Toronto, both of which had seen unprecedented success, so she customized it for Northern Ontario. In January, her program paired grades five and six students from her hometown elementary school with students from the local university.

While some Studio Y fellows are designing not-for-profit programs, others like Selena Lucien Shaboian are hoping to create for-profit startups. Ms. Lucien Shaboian, a graduate from the London School of Economics, noticed that self-represented litigants in Ontario faced an uphill battle in small claims court when she was temporarily working as a court reporter.

Ms. Lucien Shaboian saw a problem within the justice system, and applied to Studio Y for a fellowship so she could narrow down a solution and facilitate access to justice through technology. Today, she’s building a program called Small Claims Wizard, which is best described as a “legal aid wizard” or “legal concierge” that provides litigants with a step-by-step approach to filing and enforcing claims.

This was not a startup she would have built on her own. In her first few weeks at Studio Y, she found a lawyer and software programmer to partner with, and she is now doing a business plan and market intelligence to determine whether this bold idea can turn a profit.

For many, Studio Y has led to exciting new job opportunities. Ms. Kargiannakis landed a job with the Ministry of Economic Development and Employment Infrastructure as a policy co-op student in the office of social enterprise. Earlier this year, she was selected as one of 2,000 young people across the Commonwealth who were awarded Queen’s Young Leaders award. That honor will be bestowed in June by her Majesty, the Queen. “I never would have won this award without the space and time in Studio Y to complete my community impact projects. Studio Y was an integral part of my success,” Ms. Kargiannakis says.

Applications for Studio [Y] Fellowship close on March 16. Learn more about how to apply to Studio [Y].

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Karen Mazurkewich

Karen Mazurkewich is Lead Executive, Communications & Marketing at MaRS. In addition to co-founding her own startup, she spent a decade as a senior journalist for the Wall Street Journal in Asia and the Financial Post in Toronto. See more…