Looking back at 4 Years of UW Co-op


Map of the University of Waterloo in Waterloo Ontario Canada

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.

Interview IQ

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.

Start Up or Join Up?

Recent graduates from post-secondary schools across Canada have an interesting choice to make: should they start up a new enterprise or accept an offer to join an established one?

The student start-up dream has been immortalized by wild success stories.  Legends abound of university drop-outs like Mike Lazaridis (creator of the BlackBerry) and Bill Gates, as well as graduates like Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerburg – all students who left university to pursue technology start-ups that changed the world.

Intelligent and creative students across the country are faced with a choice when they graduate.  They may have innovative and ambitious ideas for new businesses, but are inundated with offers from businesses that need the best and brightest new graduates to survive. When faced with the choice between working for an established enterprise like Research In Motion (RIM), Google or Facebook, and starting their own venture, how should a student decide?

The price of failure – risk – is often the largest deterrent for anyone considering an entrepreneurial venture.  Students who finance their education with student loans (about 26% of Canadian students according to StatsCan – I think it’s closer to 50%) might have no choice but to accept an offer of steady income that helps pay down their debt.  Even for those rare few students that manage to graduate debt-free, sometimes a steady paycheque is too tempting to resist.  When you graduated university/college, wasn’t money your largest concern?

Students might also be concerned about missing the opportunities for networking, training and resume building that a large enterprise might offer them.  There’s no doubt about it, yesterday’s start-ups are now large firms with fixed budgets that have attractive perks for new hires.  The trade-offs are similar to the differences between working for a small company vs. big company – only with added risk and potential reward. So what’s stopping young entrepreneurs from getting hired?

A new wave of student organizations have started promoting youth entrepreneurship, encouraging students in high school, college and university to pursue their innovative ideas. Impact, UBC’s Enterprize Canada and EPIC Tech are three examples of student run not for profit organizations that are fostering a new community of student entrepreneurs that aren’t afraid to innovate.  These organizations are supported by venture capital and consulting firms looking to foster a new generation of clientele, as well as government agencies that (like the rest of us) would like to see more jobs created on Canadian soil.

Universities are catching on.

The University of Waterloo has created an entrepreneurship-based student residence called VeloCity, where students form teams that develop actual mobile media businesses over the course of the academic year.   This business community holds seminars and information sessions about starting a successful venture, and acts as a gateway into venture support networks in the wider community, like the Accelerator Centre.  This is a trend that is sure to continue.

Now when asked the question, “start up or join up” what would you do?

The Liberal Arts: Irrelevant in a Digital Age?

University degrees are splintering into a wider range of disciplines than ever before.  New programs are starting to blend traditional disciplines with cutting edge technology like nanotechnology engineering, or creating entirely new mixes that more accurately serve the needs of the workplace.  The pile of programs and credentials available may be daunting, but students are not complaining — the higher their chances of obtaining full time employment after graduation, the better.  That makes the case for studying liberal arts increasingly difficult in the face of such a diverse array of more “real world” degrees.  The question is, is there still a place for the world’s oldest degree in a digital age?

Several years ago there was a flurry of positive rhetoric in the media about the value of a liberal arts degree, but the voices died down in the shadow of the sub-prime recession.  Just like everyone else, BA holders continue to graduate into less than ideal hiring conditions, and have to work harder than the average applicant to convince people of the value of their degree.  Part of the challenge is a negative perception of arts majors, and sizable number of arts graduates competing for the same positions.  For these reasons and more, the humanities and social sciences are as unappealing as ever — so how do the lucky few overcome the negativity?

It’s about Passion – Period.

In the wide world of university, arguments abound about the merits of a particular degree.  It used to be that a university diploma was your rolled up ticket into a job, and in some limited spheres it still is.  So when in doubt, people are cajoled into signing up for a degree that will “guarantee” them a job.   There are many reasons for going to university, and I think getting a job is as valid a reason as any other.  However, spending 4 years of time and potential income on any subject you’re not passionate about isn’t guaranteeing anything but misery.

The question is, is there still a place for the world’s oldest degree in a digital age?

If liberal arts has one strength, it tends to be the passion that people have for it over other disciplines.  If you are passionate about what you study, the information tends to stay with you.  Too many people spend their undergraduate degrees dispassionately passing courses just to get by… And what good is that?  If you graduate from the most elite job-guaranteeing program in the country, and you hated every minute of it, do you think you’ll enjoy the job waiting for you?  I’m not saying that living on a cloud for 4 years and graduating into poverty is ideal.  I believe that pursuit of passion naturally makes you more successful because you’re personally invested in the outcome.  If your passion is Actuarial Science, all the better for you.  For the rest of us, we should study something we enjoy!

Career Development Happens Between Classes

When you graduate, degree in hand, many other people will too.  If all that sets you apart are the letters on your degree, it may be difficult to prove you’re the best person for the job.  So how do you differentiate yourself?

The fact is that real career development happens between classes. In most cases, it’s true that students in professional programs like accounting and engineering are given crippling workloads that far exceeds the demands of your typical essay writing arts student.  When it comes to career development, however, this can be a blessing in disguise.

With the additional free time that a flexible arts degree provides, an enterprising student has time to work part time, network, get involved in academic life and still come out with great marks.  Is this a substitution for a degree in software engineering?  Absolutely not.  But there is enough room outside the academic demands of a typical arts degree to get immersed in what you love doing.  Outside class is a perfect place to practice networking, traveling, and upgrading your technical skills.  There is nothing stopping an ambitious political science student from becoming a PhotoShop wizard or web designer.  Don’t wait until you have your degree to develop your interests; in any discipline the best career skills are learned outside the classroom.

What you Learn becomes Irrelevant; How you Learn Never Does

Quickly after you graduate from university studies, the specific tidbits of knowledge you learned will fade away, becoming less and less important as “real life” experience takes over.  The details become obscured, but the core skills you learned stay with you for a long time.  How to research, attack a problem, meet new people, do a presentation, and write coherently are all skills you can come away from university with — or not.  It’s up to you.  The more varied your experiences are, the more of these foundational skills you’ll come away with.  Combined with passion and personal initiative, a liberal arts degree allows you the freedom to develop transferable skills that set you apart.

Now and in the future, the latest greatest most specialized university program will always be in demand.  Amid the vast selection of  “real world” degrees and their promise of a 98% employment rate, remember that you are paying for an experience, so make sure it’s a good one.  Liberal arts have stayed relevant for centuries, and will continue to do so despite what the critics say.  Above all, study what you love, develop your skills outside the classroom and the rest will come naturally.