For many students at the University of Waterloo, the third weekend of class is spent applying to co-op jobs for their next 4-month semester. Thousands of students polish up their resumes and log onto JobMine (our campus co-op job posting server) to look for opportunities that resonate with them. This past weekend I did the same thing, but this semester is a little different. Fall 2010 will be my last co-op term before I graduate.
Looking back at my experiences with co-op, I sometimes wonder what my degree might have been like without it. It’s hard to imagine, because co-op has been such a huge part of my university experience. Here are a few reasons why I think co-op is so essential – and why I can’t imagine having an education without it.
Some of the greatest opportunities available to us in life require an interview – but how often does the average person get to practice interview skills in real life? Answering questions appropriately, dressing to impress, and preparing intelligent questions are all difficult skills to master by studying theory alone.
Co-op students may have up anywhere from 5-15 interviews every academic semester, both in person and on the phone. Completing a battery of three interviews in one day between classes, projects and presentations isn’t rare. Interviews have taught me how to present myself professionally to not only potential employers, but also clients and business partners – an important skill I’ll use for the rest of my life.
Learning How to Hit the Ground Running
In just 4 months, co-op students have to learn a new job quickly so we can become productive as soon as possible. Unless employers have a strong co-op orientation program, it’s usually left up to us to learn on the job. In a new environment, we need to quickly integrate into a new work culture and master new skills depending on what is expected of us.
One thing every student learns at university is how to learn. Each academic semester and work term builds a portfolio of professional skills we can draw on, and we always keep learning new things. The Microsoft Office suite quickly becomes second nature to most co-ops. Programming languages are practiced and picked up, as are soft skills like writing effective emails and telephone etiquette.
It’s often said that most 21st century professionals can expect to change their career at least once in their lives. Knowing how to quickly adapt to new environments allows co-op students to embrace these changes and succeed no matter where they go.
Clarifying Career Goals and Objectives
Entering university, every student has lots of ideas about what they might be one day. Co-op work terms help clarify those goals with each 4 month experiment. Trying different industries, work cultures, and company sizes helps university students discover their passions before they graduate and commit to a full time job. If they are lucky, a co-op may stumble on their dream job half way through their degree and return once they graduate. The diverse group of people we meet in each workplace helps us find both role models and people we never want to be.
In essence, co-op helps define our ideal career by letting us try up to six different ones. And that has helped me define my own career path, starting April 2011.