Learning to Work

by Eliot Applestein
Special to The Washington Post
July 25, 2000

Catherine Tatler's life is divided into six-month chunks. The Drexel University electrical engineering student goes to class for six months, then works the next six months at Invensys Corp., a British company located in Philadelphia that designs and manufactures heating and air conditioning equipment. When she graduates in 2002, Tatler already will have 18 months of work experience with the company that plans to hire her. She receives on-the-job training and college credit. The $13.25 per hour she earns for her 40-hour weeks almost pays her tuition for the year.

Tom Dederick, a first-year masters student at American University, is also getting training, college credit and a salary for his work at the Overseas Private Investment Corp., which finances insurance for U.S. corporations and small businesses in small, emerging overseas markets. Unlike Tatler, though, he works and attends class. Next semester he will be working for a different organization, doing research in South Africa.

Both Dederick and Tatler participate in co-op programs at their respective universities. And both rave about the advantages of a co-op experience.

"I love it here," says Tatler. "They take the time to work with you. . . . I feel I am getting a really thorough training."

Notes Dederick, "I've been able to take the knowledge from the classroom and incorporate it into a professional setting. The organization treats the interns as integral members of the organization."

Cooperative education originated at the University of Cincinnati in 1906. Today approximately 600 schools offer some form of co-op experience for 250,000 students nationwide, either as alternating work/classroom experiences or as parallel programs where students engage in concurrent work and academics. According to the Cooperative Education Association, students work for more than 50,000 industry, business, government and nonprofit employers. It is mandated in more than 45 institutions, including Drexel, Northeastern and Antioch.

"Students should insist on learning both in the classroom and out in the world," says developmental psychologist Patricia Linn, Dawson Chair of Cooperative Education at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. For Linn, who is undertaking a cross-generational study of Antioch graduates, learning is not "a one-way flow of knowledge from professor to student" but rather a discourse between the learner and the learned, where students become legitimate participants in the world.

She says she has seen "these students, not all 'A' students, develop and change and become incredible adults, and that is an experience many young people could benefit from.

"I can think of a young woman whom I taught who needed so much support that I wasn't sure she would make it. Yet, when I visited her while she worked at a large state hospital, locked in a dingy ward, she was able to take care of a pair of teenagers who were about to have a scuffle. She had became very competent. She was changed."

At Antioch, where the co-op experience is the central focus, students alternate between a liberal arts curriculum and a four-month paid work/study, generally off-site. At any one time, one-half of the students are off campus. And while co-op coordinators can help arrange employment, students are free to create their own.

Work experiences allow students to evaluate their career goals. Miguel Santiago, a recent Antioch graduate who now works in the admissions office, wanted to see whether his desire to work in film was serious, so he called Francis Ford Coppola's studio manager and asked for a co-op job.

Several months later he was living in San Francisco creating a sound database for the movie "Jack," starring Robin Williams and Bill Cosby. While living in San Francisco was exciting, making a sound database wasn't and Santiago dropped his interest in film.

Antioch students who set up their own co-op, negotiate their own salary and are responsible for figuring out room and board. If the employer pays the minimum $50 a week, the employer picks up room and board. Antioch gives students a $300 stipend for co-ops in this country and $800 for a one-time overseas co-op.

Students at Drexel University in Philadelphia often have the leisure to remain in their dorms during their co-op stints since 93 percent work in the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware region. Salaries averaging $12,380 for a six-month co-op can pay for a significant portion of tuition.

According to Sue Strup, director of Cooperative Education and Career Services, a majority of Drexel students find co-op jobs in the engineering, technology and science arenas. Ninety-five percent of Drexel's students elect to enroll in a five-year program including three six-month co-op experiences.

"Our students have 18 months of work experience by the time they graduate," says Strup. "As seniors, they will have interviewed with 60 companies. They all have such polished interview skills."

With such high-powered companies as SmithKline Beecham, UNISYS, and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, students are allowed the freedom to explore various work experiences. And 29 percent of Drexel graduates land jobs with their former co-op employers. Half of last year's seniors were offered full-time jobs before graduation.

At American University, where up to 80 percent of students engage in some form of co-op, the usual pattern is for students to take several academic classes while working 16 hours a week. The average pay is $4,300, but it is not unusual for students in Internet technology positions to receive far more.

"In the future," says Francine Blume, American University's director of cooperative education, "more and more students will be demanding co-ops."

Fifty percent of Blume's students realize through their internship that they wouldn't want a similar job once they graduate. "After spending $80,000 on your college education, knowing you don't want to do a particular job is valuable," she says. And knowing you do want to pursue what you didn't like at first also is valuable.

Says Dederick, "When I began, I thought working in insurance wouldn't be interesting, but doing political risk analysis is really interesting. It has been a great experience for me. This is the kind of thing I'm interested in long-term."

Eliot Applestein is an independent college counselor in North Bethesda. Comments to

Before You Choose

There are many things you should consider before choosing a university with a co-op program. Among them:

* Is there a centralized office that oversees the co-op experience? "Over the last 25 years, the term co-op hasn't meant the same thing to people," says Francine Blume, American University's director of Cooperative Education. "They think it's a place where they buy their vegetables. So we decided to call it an internship, where students have a substantive work experience that they take back to their classroom."

Almost all universities offer some form of work experience, but there is wide variation and the terms can be confusing. Except for American's distinction, an internship is generally a one-time, senior year, experience. The employer's evaluation does not figure into the student's final grade and work generally is unpaid. A co-op, on the other hand, usually begins during the sophomore term and takes the form of either alternating (full-time work followed by full-time academics) or parallel (concurrent work and academics) programs.

The main distinction of a co-op program, however, is that there is a centralized campus office that oversees the student's work experience.

"A co-op arrangement is a triangle between the institution, employer and student," says Dawn Pettit, executive director of the Cooperative Education Association. "All play a role in the development and evaluation of the program."

For example, Miguel Santiago's co-op counselor traveled to San Francisco to meet with studio staff. His employer evaluated his performance and he wrote a paper about his experience.

"It could be difficult for a student to go to an employer and say, 'This is my first job and I'm scared,' " says Pettit, "Whereas she could go to the co-op coordinator and share this." A centralized program also provides a formal way for students to receive recognition for their work experience, and students often are hired through the college's co-op center.

* How involved will faculty be? The faculty should monitor and advise the student when to take the co-op, approve the work experience, and evaluate it. Unfortunately, says Pettit, "Faculty tend not to have co-op education on their radars because they are being evaluated on how much they publish, etc. They're not evaluated by how many students get good jobs, but how many students they had in their PhD programs and they helped in their theses."

* Will you get paid? Employers tend to view students as more valuable when they have to pay for them.

"In this economy," says Pettit, "there is no reason for an unpaid co-op experience."

* Does the university offer a parallel or alternate program? Co-op programs come in two "flavors"--alternating and parallel. Students on alternating plans have greater options for moving out of state since they are not tied to the classroom while they work.

"The advantage of alternating programs is that the student gets an immersion experience," says Blume. "You get a deeper understanding of the workplace culture and more of an opportunity to work on projects more intensely for longer periods of time. This is more of a Life 101 experience, which will best suit a student who needs to focus on one thing at a time."

The parallel program has its advantages as well. Students graduate in four years instead of five (or without having to take summer sessions) and, according to Blume, "It helps students learn time management skills so that they can budget their time between class or work. Also it lessens the culture shock of going back into the classroom."

* Will you get good work experience or just do grunt work? "I've seen a lot of friends who have had bad co-op experiences," says Catherine Tatler. "They had employers who didn't give them enough work to do or too much grunt work--pushing papers or a lot of data entry. They understand that that is part of what has to be done, but I had an engineering friend who only did that."

While there is no guarantee that your work will be intellectually stimulating, it might help to ask to speak to a co-op student who has worked there before.

* Are you the type of person who can benefit from a co-op? Some students are not mature enough to leave peers and find a job and living arrangements in another area. Some party too much and can't structure their lives. In such cases, says Linn, they counsel them out of the program.

The Antioch co-op experience is intense. Students alternate between five co-ops and seven classroom study terms.

"It's not an easy program," says Antioch College graduate Santiago, "because you are constantly moving, packing and putting your things into storage every four months. I brought with me a small CD player, 10 favorite CDs, no more than 10 pairs of underwear, all in one large suitcase.

It's hard taking four classes and looking for a job. It's always a comfort to come back to school because it is a sense of home and you can share your experiences with friends."