Esther Rhee: The Philosophy of Helping Others

What can you do with a philosophy degree? Well, you can use it to make a big shift in the way you think, and change the course of your life, says Esther Rhee.

The national program director of Autism Speaks Canada is the 2018 Young Alumni Award recipient for U of G’s Alumni Awards of Excellence. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 2005.

The philosophy she studied at the University of Guelph changed her perspective, changed her mind and changed her life.

“I had taken a bunch of philosophy classes and loved them,” she says. “I didn’t actually know where it was going to lead me, but I really wanted to do what I enjoyed. Something inside of me said this was an opportunity for me to grow.”

In her final year, she changed her major, diving headlong into philosophy despite the protests of many who warned she was making a bad decision, one that could bar the way to a rewarding career.

But philosophy helped her to reflect deeply, not so much on what she wanted to do with her life but on how she wanted to be in life.

“That was the big shift that happened for me here at Guelph,” says Rhee. “I’ve carried that with me all the way through, and that’s how I found my career.”

Esther is recognized nationally for her leadership in promoting mental health and raising awareness of autism. She pioneered a community collaborative model that changed the way families impacted by autism are supported in Canada.

After U of G, Rhee spent lots of time philosophically considering what would make her the best person she could be and where she could do the most good.

“I started networking, and I realized that I wanted to go into the helping field,” she says. She followed the advice of an early mentor, who told her to focus on building great relationships, because from them would come great things. She began volunteering in the area of childhood trauma exposure around the same time.

“I loved what I did, but it was very heavy. My worldview changed, and I had to take a break and remove myself from that.”
Attending to her inner “who am I” voice and following her desire to help others led her to do a master of social work at Wilfrid Laurier University.

The universe was truly giving me an opportunity

Semi-profile photograph of Esther Rhee looking thoughtful.
“Take your blinder off” and stay open to the possibilities, is Rhee’s advice to students.

Just as she was completing that degree, she received an offer to work for a new organization dedicated to improving understanding of autism. Philosophically and emotionally, it seemed like the right thing to do. She accepted, after some trepidation.

“I actually said on the phone, ‘I think you have the wrong person. I don’t know a lot about autism at all.’ But it was one of those situations where it really seemed like the universe was truly giving me an opportunity to do something different. And I thought, why not?”

She conjured up all she had learned as a philosophy major at U of G, switched her mindset and started a not-for-profit organization, Autism Services Waterloo Region, focusing on helping people with autism and their families. After three years, she moved to Autism Speaks Canada based in Toronto, where she has helped build hundreds of programs across the country.

Rhee had many great experiences at U of G, but one of her most noteworthy, she said, was a close bond she had with a laboratory rat.

“We were in the lab all the time teaching them tricks and conditioning them, and that was truly one of my favourite memories. I ended up adopting that rat afterwards. People often knew me as the girl who had the pet rat at Guelph.”

She calls her time at U of G “transformative,” a time of growing confidence and independence.

“When I look back over my whole career trajectory, I had no idea where life was going to take me. And that was a great thing, to be open and to just trust – to trust who I wanted to be and that it would bring wonderful things.”

She calls her work a dream job, one that affords her the privilege of addressing Canadian members of Parliament and spread awareness about autism. She has many public speaking engagements throughout the year and is involved in numerous exciting projects, all aimed at helping people.

“I’m really proud that I stuck to my values and I never forgot why I got into all of this, why I wanted to get into social work, and it was just to give, to serve and support other people.”

Rhee returns often to U of G to see her favourite professors and to speak with students about life after university. What does she tell them?

“I say, ‘Take your blinders off.’ Some of the opportunities that are going to present themselves after graduation don’t even exist right now. There’s no way we can predict what that path will look like, so truly focus on who you want to be, what your values are and what direction you want to go in.”