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University of Waterloo Co-Op Program Builds Work Experience Into Undergrad Program

November 6, 2017

WATERLOO, ON (Canada)–As students across the United States complete college applications I recommend taking a look north of the border. By the time I graduated from the University of Waterloo (Waterloo, ON, Canada) with the Class of 1990 I already had over two years of full-time work experience thanks to Waterloo’s world leading (and largest) co-op program. While many colleges have career centers and provide resources to help students land summer internships, Waterloo makes practical work experience an integral part of their program. Students in co-op alternate between four month academic semesters and four month work terms, getting paid work experience with companies across Canada and North America. Waterloo’s reputation for computer science and software engineering means that Silicon Valley companies actively recruit Waterloo co-ops. Having the University of Waterloo on my resume was one reason I was recruited by my current employer.

To learn more about Waterloo’s co-op program I spoke with Peggy Jarvie, Associate Provost, Co-operative and Experiential Education at the University of Waterloo.

Tatham Centre MUR

University of Waterloo Tatham Centre for Career Action

James Morehead: How did co-op get started at the University of Waterloo?

Peggy Jarvie: “This is our 60th birthday. The University of Waterloo was founded in 1957 by a group of local business people and academics with the goal of founding a new education program that could respond to the high demand for engineers in Canada. Engineering was the founding faculty at Waterloo and co-op was part of the concept from the beginning.

“Waterloo was the first co-op university in Canada and at the time there was a lot of pushback: co-op was considered more of a training model than an education model. In the spirit of Waterloo the founders went ahead and started the university anyway. We started with 74 engineering students in 1957. [Editor: there are over 30,000 students today and two thirds are co-op students.]

“Co-op is mandatory in Waterloo engineering and is available as an option in all six faculties for over 120 different academic programs. Co-op at Waterloo has grown from a tiny program to world-leading.”

Morehead: What can prospective students expect in a Waterloo co-op program?

Jarvie: “In Waterloo engineering, for example, there are six work terms built into the sequence, and in all of our programs at least four work terms are required. Once students start the co-op sequence they alternate between four months of study and four months of work. It’s a brilliant model; obvious benefits are work experience and money. Because Waterloo co-op makes it easier for students to earn an income while completing their degree we have a higher proportion of first-in-family students, new immigrants, farming families, and so on. Co-op makes it economically viable for more students to go to university. While money sounds mercenary, what that really provides is accessibility for more students.

“We also find that students learn about their field of study more deeply because they can apply their learnings in a work setting every four months, in lots of different situations. When Waterloo students graduate they can have up to two years of real work experience which makes those students much more marketable in today’s labor market.

“In Canada the co-op concept is more uniformly understood and applied than anywhere else in the world. Here, co-op means multiple paid, full-time work experiences, alternating with study terms [Waterloo’s program is accredited through Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE)]. The amount of time spent in work experiences has to equal at least 30 percent of the time the student is in academic studies.”

Morehead: How does the University of Waterloo help ensure every student, to the extent possible, is placed with an employer during each work term?

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Waterloo co-op students get used to interviewing between classes

Jarvie: “The program at Waterloo is competitive. We train students, give them information on how to write resumes, apply for jobs through our recruitment system and conduct an interview, but the students do the work. Students apply, employers screen applicants for interviews, students and employers rank each other, and then we run a match.

“We try and get every student placed in a work term, and our employment rate is close to 98% annualized. That said, that statistic doesn’t matter to students who don’t get placed so we focus on individual cases even while working with over 20,000 students per year.

“There is a main round of interviews, typically in the second month of the academic term, followed by a continuous round where there are three days of interviews and two matches every week for six weeks. If students at the beginning of exams are not yet employed then every single one of those students is assigned an advisor for 1:1 outreach.

“The requirement for a work term is 16 weeks, but you can get credit for a work term of 12 weeks so we work with some students into the first month of the work term if required.”

Morehead: I’m sure there are thousands of amazing work term stories; share a couple of your favorites.

Jarvie: “I recommend you look at our co-op students of the year. One of my favorite stories is about Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto. Dr. Edward Chow runs a palliative radiation clinic for cancer patients with terminal illnesses where the goal is to reduce pain and improve the quality of life. We’ve had multiple co-op students of the year from work terms at Sunnybrook, where students get clinical and research experience. Every Waterloo student who has gone through Dr. Chow’s program has been accepted into medical school or a related graduate program. I’ve been consistently impressed with the experiences our students have in work terms.

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“An important role for work terms is helping students identify earlier that a field of study isn’t the field they actually want to be in, providing an opportunity to pivot while still an undergrad. A student who discovers what they don’t want gains as much from co-op as the student gains more experience in a field they enjoy.”

Morehead: Where do you see the co-op program at Waterloo going in the future?

Jarvie: “I believe the co-op model is brilliant and will continue indefinitely into the future. There are opportunities for expanding the model, for example allowing students to start their own business during a co-op work term. We have students who launch a startup during their work terms and then end up hiring co-op students after they graduate. Work terms in a startup provide students a window into what starting a company really takes.

“Two months ago we launched EDGE, an experiential education certificate program, for students not enrolled in the co-op program. We’re giving these students access to some of the resources available in the co-op program so that they can get the most out of their work and internship experiences.

“Next September we’re introducing a co-op concentration that will allow students who complete a certain number of research work terms and complete a research course to have an additional element added to their undergraduate credentials.”

Morehead: Finally, what is the best way for prospective students to get a closer look at the co-op program during a campus visit?

Jarvie: “You can start at the visitor center near the William M. Tatham Centre for Co-operative Education & Career Action. Campus tours always include co-op and how the program works. We can also make folks available for additional questions.”

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