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Co-op Withdrawal: Finding a Cure

It was not until I had completed my first co-op job at Voice of America in Washington, D.C., and returned to classes on campus that I came to the realization that I was not prepared for all the challenges I would encounter in my co-op experience. Following my last day of work, I moved home to Philadelphia and, after just two days, was back in classes. What I quickly found was that leading the life of a college student again was incredibly difficult after having been in the workforce for half of a year.

I felt as if I was being done a disservice by Drexel. I struggled that entire spring quarter, and the best way I could describe what I was facing at that time was a bad case “co-op withdrawal.” The simple truth is that I was not ready to begin classes again.

Drexel University boasts one of the top cooperative education programs in the country; this pride is arguably justified. In fact, it is for this very same reason that it attracts many students from across the nation and around the globe from countries like Ghana, Australia, Colombia, China, and Scotland, only to name a few; in addition to a comprehensive education, the cooperative education component of Drexel’s curriculum is considered a major key to success in our fast-paced, ever-advancing world. Considering that co-op is an integral part of many students’ academic careers, the university ensures that preparation comes to all those students who are intent on participating in the program. However, those very same students will not also receive the assistance they need to make a successful transition back into the classroom following six months of work experience, an issue which has gone unaddressed by the university.

Drexel Co-op, Defined

The function of cooperative education, or “co-op,” is to provide students with work experience to further their studies in a practical way. Like an internship in that respect, it provides students with work experience; the difference, though, lies in the facts that a co-op is usually more of an in-depth, extensive approach to the experience; students stop taking classes to work regularly, largely in full-time positions; and these typically paid job opportunities last from three to twelve months at a time. Considering the benefits of cooperative education, participating students are able to graduate with an advantage over their peers.

Sample plans of study for one and three co-op options (via drexel.edu)

A number of universities across the United States offer their students opportunities for cooperative education. Some American institutions which offer co-op programs include: La Salle University, Cornell University, Northeastern University, Elon University, and the University of Cincinnati. Though this major trademark of a Drexel University education is not exclusive to the university, Drexel was one of the earliest schools to integrate the co-op into its curriculum. Since its inception in 1919, Drexel now has one of the biggest programs in the nation with partnerships with over 1,650 institutions, those being institutions of business, industry, government, and so on. As mentioned earlier, more than 91% of Drexel’s undergraduate students enroll in the co-op program; in other words, that is over 5,200 students each year from across the university’s schools and colleges.

Due to the enormous presence that co-op has at Drexel, students can take advantage of a major resource, the Steinbright Career Development Center (SCDC), for career services and support. These services extend not only to cooperative education but also to career preparation before leaving the university as well as assistance in searching and obtaining jobs upon graduating with one’s degree; to name a few things, said services come in the form of SCDC online, Dragon Jobs, assigned co-op coordinators, and countless workshops open to all students.

Co-op has, in fact, become such a fundamental aspect of the university that a pre-requisite course, COOP 101: Career Management and Professional Development, is now part of a participating student’s curriculum. The zero-credit course is intended to guide students in the processes of searching for jobs, creating and polishing resumes, interviewing, corresponding with employers, and learning about professional conduct and addressing workplace issues. It also serves to familiarize students with SCDC and its roles. Without successfully completing this course, a student cannot be considered eligible to fulfill the co-op. The COOP 101 course, which I remember personally, seemed to have prepared me for my work experience.

Me working on a piece in the newsroom at VOA – it was an invaluable experience.

Over the duration of 10 weeks, our instructor lectured and facilitated activities involving key words for building good resumes, “30-second commercials” (or succinct self-introductions for networking purposes), mock interviews, and letter drafting for communication with employers and coworkers. These were skills not only for preparing the students for the co-op itself, but also for career endeavors after college. When I had earned my first position with Voice of America, I felt that I was adequately prepared for my six-month work experience, and it turned out that I mostly was.

Although I was immensely satisfied with the turnout of my cooperative education experience, the dissatisfaction I felt regarding my transition back into classes put a damper on my overall opinion of the quality of the co-op program. While the university places so much emphasis on the process of finding and securing a co-op job, a student is left with a short, unsupported transitional period for diving back into classes. For me, the sudden need for a change in lifestyle after an extended period made it difficult to readjust to student life and responsibilities, thus jeopardizing my academic success.

To hear another student’s take on co-op and compare it with my own, I spoke with Drexel senior Kandra Bolden, who has had two undergraduate co-op job positions. Bolden is an Entertainment and Arts Management major, in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, which allows for two three-month jobs (fairly uncommon across the university) completed during her sophomore and junior years. Reflecting on both years, Bolden informed me that, because of the length of her co-ops, she did not personally have any complications in returning to classes. Still, because she has many friends and classmates with six-month co-op experiences, she has heard a number of complaints about the special challenges students face after leaving their jobs.

“Uncomfortable”: Real Students, Real Stories 

According to Bolden, her peers discuss the strangeness of attending classes, again having the responsibility of doing homework assignments, and studying for tests and quizzes throughout the quarter. The lifestyle proves to be very different from one of an employee who does not have these responsibilities after leaving the office at the end of a workday.

When asked, then, to give one word to best describe the transitional period for her peers, she found the word “uncomfortable” to be most fitting. Elaborating, Bolden told me that the rapidity of a Drexel education only adds to the burden of students’ workloads because they are forced to move between “two distinct routines,” leaving them not just uncomfortable, but frustrated and disenchanted as well.

I remembered in that moment how I struggled in regaining my footing after I returned from co-op, later expressing my concerns with friends and other peers and unsurprisingly finding that I was not the only student to have had a hard time. With this memory in mind, I conducted a survey titled “Student Views on the Drexel Co-op Experience” to formally collect real, anonymous students’ responses to 10 questions—the set of questions allowed for objective and open-ended answers—about their involvement in the program, their shift back from the workplace, and the support that they received all throughout their completed co-op cycle(s). One requirement for eligibility to complete the survey was that a respondent fully completed at least one Drexel co-op before the time that the survey was taken. I received 33 responses after outreach on social media to known and unknown people alike. The sample includes past and current Drexel students across six schools and colleges who have held one to three co-op positions in the past, with more than half of them having had two or more.

A large portion of the survey responses were as I had expected them to be: ultimately, most of the participants indicated that they believed the university and Steinbright should address the lack of support that there is for students as they readjust to academic life. The comment section that allowed for this open response came after all other questions and acted as a conclusion for all of the respondents’ views from throughout the survey. One person’s thoughts read: “It shouldn’t feel like the only aim is to get a job but to ensure that students do well academically, and that often means supporting them when they return to class.”

Aside from the final question, another asked whether the student, reflecting on the entirety of her or his co-op, felt well-prepared after taking COOP 101, and 87% of participants said that the course did not provide the best preparation for them to begin with. Another set of responses in the survey determined that 40% of the sample student population felt distant or completely detached from Drexel and the campus upon re-enrolling in courses on campus. And the transitional period between co-op and class-time proved challenging to some degree (either a bit difficult or really hard) for 55% of the respondents.

Graph showing survey responses (created with SurveyMonkey)

Only four of 33 participants reported that they were told by at least one person—that individual could have been a friend, mentor, classmate, advisor, or coordinator—that readjusting to the demands of being a student would be challenging for them. I found this statistic striking. And, finally, 13 of the survey’s respondents expressed openly that Steinbright should improve the student experience following co-op and gave some ideas as to what they would like to see happen on the part of the university, which, along with my added detail and proposals, I will discuss later.

The significance of these responses is that they highlight the lack of accommodation’s impact on students. An immediate change from the career world to student living affects the lives and performance of co-op participants internally as well as academically and socially. To illustrate, the internal struggle that develops can involve stress and disorientation within the individual student in consequence to there being very little time – typically about two days – for resettlement, both physical and mental. If a student lives on campus but moved to a new location for the co-op, then there is insufficient time for moving back into housing when the time comes. There is also minimal time for post-co-op reflection and rest before the stresses of studentship are reactivated. In effect to this want of recuperation, the academic issue of student burnout also arises because an individual is unable to readopt the mentality of a student quickly enough, and the fast pace of the quarter makes learning even more difficult.

My predicament was a clear exemplifier of this conflict: because of my inability to acculturate speedily to the classroom, it felt impossible for me to keep up. Kristen Gallo-Zdunowski, Assistant Director for Cooperative Education at the Steinbright Career Development Center, agreed that difficulty in readjustment is a common theme amongst complaints from students. Gallo-Zdunowski oversees a team of 7 co-op coordinators and has a small caseload of students and employers. Her team works with students from a number of schools and colleges including the LeBow College of Business, the Close School of Entrepreneurship, and the School of Public Health. Upon returning to class, “the challenges mentioned by students…tend to focus on time management and shifting of routine,” she said. “It can take time to get used to the change from a structured work day to classes throughout the week with differing requirements, projects, and meeting times.”

In having a dreadful start to a fast, 10-week term, my chances of doing well were worse than they would have been had I been given more time to settle and collect myself and my responsibilities. Instead, I was burnt out by the end of the first week. Then, a social challenge may present itself in the forms of social distress or some degree of culture shock due to a student’s sudden environmental changes. To explain, a workplace environment of cubicles, offices, and conference rooms is unlike a college setting of lecture halls, classrooms, study sessions, and library meetups for group projects. Regaining comfort with one’s surroundings and again taking on the norms of student conduct can take more than two or three days to do, hence the occurrence of culture shock and the social burden of interaction that accompanies it, which both often lead to an individual’s shutting down internally and physically.

Further into our interview, Bolden observed that Drexel’s cooperative education program is “definitely something that should be celebrated”; but, at the same time, the entirety of the process should see students more equipped as opposed to struggling to acclimate to classes once it is completed. One of her suggestions include having a personal meeting between a student and co-op coordinator with focus on the student’s academic and social comfort level at the start of (and throughout) the new quarter, the purpose being for the student to have someone to talk to as well as to be aware that she has a ready point of contact should handling the course-load become too difficult. A one-on-one meeting, in Bolden’s opinion, would be beneficial simply because the university will be making effort to ensure that students are taking appropriate measures to do well in classes, which may include reviewing course syllabi, purchasing textbooks for classes, planning, and time-management. Bolden and I both believe that solutions to the issue of co-op withdrawal should be developed on Drexel’s part and would be easy to implement.

When asked if there is anything more that should be done by Steinbright to improve the chances of positive student experiences, Gallo-Zdunowski said that she “absolutely” believed that there is. She replied that SCDC has a “critical role to play in supporting students through their professional development” and that the center accomplishes this in a number of ways. The problem, though, is that programs in place that serve to support professional development do only that – they help students with career-readiness but not career-readiness while continuing to recognize that they are still students (i.e. transitioning from the career world back to student life, then continuing to do well as a student before returning to the workforce again). According to Gallo-Zdunowski, the LeBow College of Business has offered a course to assist marketing students following their co-op experiences, Marketing 280: Academic and Career Planning. The course is to be taken immediately after a student’s co-op cycle, and its purpose is to aid in planning upcoming coursework and to discuss the joining of newly-gained professional knowledge and knowledge gained in classes, as well as exploring career options.

There are no university-wide initiatives that aim to alleviate the effects of this workplace-to-classroom shift, and the reason for which is likely that the primary focus regarding cooperative education is on obtaining the job and maintaining it. (The existing mandatory group meeting held with co-op coordinators after co-op, the Employment Summary and Planner (ES&P) meeting, pertains only to the employment experience, plans for future co-ops, and polishing career goals.) In the hope of finding a remedy for these issues, I have thought up six potential solutions to ensure that, going forward, students will not be faced with these post-co-op challenges.

Finding a Cure

For one, co-op coordinators should have regular check-ins with the students they are assigned at scheduled times before classes resume, again between weeks one and two, and midway through the quarter to ascertain that students are doing what is necessary for them to excel in their studies.

My second recommendation follows this same pattern but involves students and their academic advisors. Although the overarching issue deals with cooperative education, academic advisors can give assistance in ways that co-op coordinators cannot. Therefore, students will benefit most from having both their coordinator and their advisor on board for the process. The assistance that they both can offer, for example, can revolve around being sure that students are keeping with a task list that includes observing the quarter timeline (for the add/drop deadline, course withdrawal deadline, midterm dates, and finals schedules); students should be tasked with taking advantage of their professors’ office hours; and meetings should consist of progress reporting, discussion, and student-driven creation of goals for the term.

Third, in addition to presently-enforced ES&P meetings in the term following a student’s completed co-op, a transition session should also be developed and made a requirement in order to receive credit for the co-op experience. Just as ES&P meetings are chosen based on students’ course schedules and attended in groups, Steinbright should notify co-op participants in a similar manner that they must schedule their transition sessions led by a co-op coordinator at the beginning of the new quarter. In the meeting, a Steinbright employee should facilitate discussions and disseminate useful information on the readjustment that students will need to make in their routines both academically and socially, as the two impact each other.

Organized study hall sessions is one way to ensure students are returning to being actively engaged in coursework.

Fourth, stemming from the idea of the transition session, coordinators and advisors can work with their students to organize study hall hours that consist of completing assignments, time management activities, student-driven discussions, and the distribution and discussion of campus resources that may be of use to the participants in their academic success.

The fifth solution is that of group “therapy”: these particular meetings, unlike the transition sessions and study hall hours, would be strictly for the purpose of voicing concerns freely and expectantly, discussion, and solution-building among the group of students in confidence. For the sixth and final (and most basic) suggestion, students who have partaken in a cooperative education experience should be granted a proper break. To clarify, students should not be scheduled or asked to continue working until the very week before classes, but a typical break between quarters should be allowed to all co-op students just as well as those students in classes. A single solution or some combination of the recommendations above would be a positive start for change in the cooperative education system.

These proposals are necessary for the prosperity of Drexel’s student body. They would not be difficult to actualize since the matter simply calls for university acknowledgement, attention, concern, and initiative. All students should be able to anticipate having ready support in reacclimating to academia after their experience in the workforce has ended. The message that must be given to past, current, and prospective students is that co-op, albeit an excellent opportunity, is not the be-all and end-all of a fulfilling experience at Drexel University.

Students should be reassured that their enrichment and health – academic, internal, and social – are the foremost priority to the university, above completion of a co-op cycle and career procurement. In the end, college students are students first, and, as such, they deserve to receive the university’s best care every step of the way.

Sharee DeVose
Author
Sharee DeVose is a junior honors student majoring in International Area Studies: Literature, Culture, and the Arts, minoring in Spanish, and pursuing a Certificate in Writing and Publishing. Sharee has written as a reporter for Voice of America international news, 5027mac.org, and Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Besides writing, she enjoys singing, cooking, baking, her enormous family, and anything that respectfully pays homage to Jane Austen.

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