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For students looking for hands on career experience, a co-op is the direction to go

By Kathleen McWilliams
On February 4, 2014

Experimental learning and applying classroom knowledge to the real world are the key components of a co-op program, according to the Center for Career Development's "Co-Op 1001" workshop.
Unlike an internship, which usually occurs over 10 weeks, a co-op program takes a student from the classroom and employs them with a company for six to eight months. During this time, students are encouraged to take only three credits and focus solely on working in a real, professional environment. Students are hired as real employees, but on a short-term basis, and they accomplish the same work as full-timers.
"The fundamental purpose is to work in a real environment," said Ashley Pedersen, the internship resources consultant hosting the event.
Pedersen said UConn is trying to expand its co-op program so that students can get hands on experience and explore a career they are interested in. Other universities, such as Northeastern in Boston Mass., mandate that students participate in a co-op program prior to graduation and while Pedersen says that UConn will most likely not make it a requirement, the university is trying to bring more co-op opportunities to students.
"It's a hands-on learning experience in a company of your choice," Pedersen said. "You get hands on and can see if it's the right field for you."
While students may have doubts about their qualifications for co-op positions, Pedersen assured students that companies hire co-op students knowing that they will do what is called "experimental learning," or working to learn the ropes of a company.
Pedersen explained that participating in a co-op means that students retain their full time student status, while only taking one class. They work full time instead, earning a place for the co-op to appear on their transcript. While there is a $104 fee for a co-op and course fees, students do not pay tuition while on co-op, nor do they have to pay room and board.
An additional financial incentive, Pedersen said, was the fact that co-ops are always paid. According to Pedersen, the average UConn co-op student makes $16,000 for their 25 weeks of full time work. For students facing post-graduate loans, Pedersen said a co-op is an excellent way to start paying them off early.
Additionally, Pedersen emphasized that a co-op is often looked upon more favorably than an internship because of the quality and intensity of the work experience.
"A lot of companies think of a co-op a lot higher, because the pipeline [to full-time post graduate work] is much stronger," Pedersen said.
Joining Pedersen in the presentation was Kim Blomker, director of financial talent development programs at IBM, and Amanda Fontana, a UConn Stamford student who just completed a co-op with the company.
Blomker urged students to get outside their comfort zone and explore a co-op because it offers a much more real experience than an internship.
"As an intern, you work on a special project; you're not seeing the day to day life at the company," Blomker said.
From a professional stand point, Blomker told students that co-ops are the quickest way to employment, although the result is dependent on one's job performance.
"From our experience, a co-op is our way to find potential candidates," Blomker said. "It is a six-month interview."
Blomker told students that most co-op employers are looking for are high academic performance, relevant work, research experience, leadership and teaming skills. While these qualities may be of foremost interest to employers, Blomker emphasized that doing well in the interview portion is the most important part of the process. Blomker, who personally interviewed Fontana for her co-op position, said that Fontana displayed transferrable skills, those learned outside of the classroom that cannot be taught, such as communication skills, and that those were the reason she was hired. Despite her lack of financial experience, Fontana's ability to handle difficult customers with grace at her Ralph Lauren retail job made her stand out during her interview.
"It goes back to transferrable skills, you can learn those anywhere," Fontana said. "What you take away from a part time job is what is important."
Fontana delivered the student perspective on co-ops and spoke favorably about her experience.
"Entering IBM at this age is very advantageous," Fontana said. "You get to experience the full culture and dynamics of IBM."
Back to being a full time student in Stamford's Financial Management program, Fontana reflected on her six months working in major and growth markets during revenue consolidation and said that the experience made her more detail oriented and focused on doing things right the first time.
"At a place like IBM you're not going to want to make mistakes...it's not homework you can put off until the morning. Your boss needs a report now and you do it and you do it well," Fontana said.
Fontana spoke of her frequent need to self-evaluate, and said that being faced with a real-world job where mistakes were not tolerated was a stressful transition. To help keep herself on track, Fontana wrote down areas in which she needed to improve, keeping her learning curve high. Fontana also went the extra mile and sought out mentors and connections at IBM, something that Blomker said most employees don't do on their own.
As for how her co-op experience has influenced her, Fontana said that the experience was very positive and helped her to grow both as a student and a professional.
"Now that I'm back to school," Fontana said. "I'm very detail oriented and I am much more confident in engaging with adults."


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