As I took the elevator up to the co-op office on the fifth floor of the Business and Economics Building, an overwhelming sense of anxiety washed over me. It was the kind of anxiety I associate with trying to navigate a university career and plan how my future will play out; a process so daunting it can send anybody running back to a procrastination-fueled Netflix binge.
But in an effort to alleviate that stress for myself and others, I met with Co-op and Career Executive Director Dr. Norah McRae to clear up common misconceptions about co-op: a process in which students spend a term working with a company preferably working within the student’s preferred field of study. Over a third of UVic students go on co-op terms, so why are the rest of UVic’s undergraduate pool hesitant to take the plunge and apply?
PROBLEM 1: I MISSED THE 2nd YEAR DEADLINE
Probably the most common reason as to why students tend to opt out of co-op is that dreaded timeline to apply.
“We send out a convocation survey every convocation,” McCrae explained. “The answers tend to fall along [the lines of] ‘we weren’t aware of that . . . and by the time I finally got it sorted it seemed to be too late’.”
There is the “typical co-op pattern” that many students are aware of. Usually a student applies after the completion of two years of academics, completes a preparatory program and is off working. However, the university now offers two other options for undergraduates that widens that timeline to accommodate everybody’s individual concerns.
The first is the Work Experience Program (WEP) that provides a mouldable approach to one’s academic journey by shortening the work terms required, therefore lifting the second-year deadline. Students in the WEP also have the option of transitioning into the full co-op program if they desire. The similar nature of both programs allows participants to switch over and complete more work terms if they have met coop requirements.
Also brought to my attention was the second option of the Post Internship Program.
As McRae explained, “It is an opportunity once all the coursework is completed but you haven’t convocated. [If] you’re still a registered student, there is a chance to do a post study, an internship and those can be usually 8 –12 months. You convocate and you go. So that’s another way to get work experience that’s not necessarily co-op but still relevant paid work experience.”
PROBLEM 2: I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT TO DO IN LIFE
What is the real takeaway of co-op and university in general? I often have thought about applying for co-op but have been paralyzed by the thought of travelling further down a career path that doesn’t quite feel right.
“Sometimes we have this idea of what success might look like for ourselves,” McRae said, “and then you try things and not everything always works out all the time.”
The classic “go try it” approach is often scoffed at, but Work Experience proves it holds an incredible amount of truth.
Not only can choosing a field of study be particularly daunting, but with the rapidly evolving nature of the workforce, the target for future jobs is moving.
McRae has often contemplated how to prepare students for what lies beyond graduation.
“Our goal is that students who graduate have a nice robust set of skills which are appropriate for the 21st century,” McRae said. “If someone has built those capabilities within themselves in a range of classroom settings and workplace settings different settings, even if job x isn’t there in 5 years, those capabilities are there and that will allow that person to adapt, innovate, create opportunities.”
PROBLEM 3: WHAT IF MY GPA ISN’T GREAT?
“I would say out of all our employers, about half want to see transcripts,” said McRae.
This comment initially baffled me; GPA is a source of insecurity for many students when it comes to applying for co-op positions.
“This is not to say that grades are not pivotal to the experience,” McRae explained. “It’s an academic program that provides a different place to situate the learning. Students need to have the GPAs that their departments are happy with to be able to do that.”
However, McRae spoke to the underlying importance of workplace learning.
“[Employers] are interested in how you demonstrate those capabilities, that you can get along with other people. And that you are able to step in. That’s what they want. Many employers would rather see a student who isn’t necessarily straight A’s, but have a well-rounded life experience. They bring more to a place of work.”
MAKE AN APPOINTMENT
These three reasons all reflect a sense of confusion for students (a thread that is usually present throughout one’s post-secondary experience): a student who is unaware of their abilities and where to apply them. Thankfully, there are ways to cut through that thick confusion.
Educators like Norah McRae are a wonderful example of people who still hold the belief that university and work study have the potential to guide every dedicated student toward their purpose — no matter the roadblocks ahead.
Next for the co-op office at UVic is a career pilot program called Leading Edge that helps guide students further toward that purpose with four main questions: What do you love, what are you great at, what does the world need, and what can you be paid for? Students interested in the program can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.