Photo: John DiJulio
University Public Affairs
School of Engineering students at Virginia Commonwealth University are choosing to further their education outside the classroom, even if it means delaying their graduation.
The school’s cooperative education, or “co-op,” program opens the door for students to work full time in a paid professional engineering position while taking a semester away from coursework. Co-ops can take many different forms, but, generally, students alternate a work term and an academic term.
The experience makes pushing back their graduation more than worthwhile. It changes students so much, said Anita Hazel Taylor, director of VCU Engineering Career Services.
“Being immersed in that [real world] environment … the difference between the student who leaves and the student who comes back is amazing. … Work informs the [way they] experience school and then we’re hoping that they take [what they have learned here] and that it will inform work.”
Rachel Judge, a rising senior in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, worked her first co-op in the summer and fall of 2015 with Neutrogena in Los Angeles. The job gave her even more experience than she expected.
“My co-op ended up working in supply chain management, which is completely different from engineering,” said Judge, who has returned for her final rotation this summer. “Once I was there, most of the people that I was interacting with and working with were actually engineers, but it was a business role. I was very nervous about that because I just finished my sophomore year of college and I had never taken a business class before.”
The job description of supply chain/operations led her to believe she would work in an operations role, such as manufacturing.
“I didn’t know anything about what supply chain was,” she said.
When Judge arrived at Neutrogena, she worked in the corporate office and went to meetings, but never went to the factory. But she took it in stride and learned as much as she could from her colleagues and senior staff on the supply chain team.
“I was able to acclimate to that environment,” Judge said. “Having both roles, having that technical expertise of what happens in a factory from a chemical engineering background, and then seeing sort of the end product and how you distribute it, gives me a holistic view of how a company works, especially in consumer products.”
Kathryn Hutchins-Duda, an electrical and computer engineering student, started her co-op at the BMW plant in South Carolina in the spring and fall semesters of 2016 and has returned this summer. Originally slated to graduate in 2018, Hutchins-Duda, a rising junior, is now graduating in 2019, but she considers this to be well worth it.
During school, she had worked in a Vertically Integrated Projects lab on multiyear, multidisciplinary, team-based projects, but wasn’t sure if she wanted to go straight into industry or on to graduate school. The co-op allowed her to experience the industry before making her decision.
“I'm working in the same department each time,” Hutchins-Duda said. “What it allows me to do is become more independent each semester. My first semester was really me learning the ropes. There’s a huge learning curve when it comes to the internal jargon, the internal database systems, so I spent my first semester just learning that.”
By her second rotation, she was able to jump right in and start working — running trials on new parts and ensuring that they integrate appropriately into the existing system out on the line.
“The idea of multiple rotations is they build on their experience so they get more responsibility the longer they’re with the company,” said John E. Speich, Ph.D., director of cooperative education for the VCU School of Engineering and associate chair of the VCU Department of Mechanical & Nuclear Engineering. “They get to hopefully see different aspects of the company along the way.”
The school officially implemented the co-op program during the 2016–2017 academic year, after students such as Judge and Hutchins-Duda blazed the trail.
“Now that we have co-op officially and formally at the engineering school it’s a vehicle that we can use to approach companies,” Taylor said. “So we were able to actually increase our employer relationships because of co-op. Some companies that in the past have done internships are now interested in doing co-ops, so they just see it as another way to engage with the students at a more meaningful level.”
Because co-ops provide an academic experience for students, Taylor and Speich view the co-op employers as teaching partners. A lot of these companies, whether they are recruiting for co-ops or general employment, want diversity, Taylor said.
“There’s a big push for diversity, especially in engineering where traditionally there has not been a lot of diversity at all,” she said.
For instance, nationally, women made up 19.8 percent of engineering students in bachelor degree programs in 2014, according to the National Science Foundation. At the VCU School of Engineering, 25 percent of students are female.
Beyond the experience, which gives co-op students a competitive advantage, the co-ops offer another benefit that actually makes pushing back graduation a boon for students.
“Students,” Speich said, “can make a lot of money when they are on co-op. For some students, this can help them actually be able to finish college because they don’t have to take out as many loans.”
Judge always tells her fellow students to think about a co-op.
“People always say, ‘Oh I have to graduate in four years,’” she said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, you can graduate in four years, but when you go look for a job … if you only have one 10-week summer internship, how is that going to compare to someone who’s worked for two quarters at a Fortune 500 company or Fortune 100 company? How well is that experience that you had there for only two months going to transfer there?’”
By delaying graduation slightly, Judge will graduate with three years of corporate work experience — and a competitive advantage in the job market.
“Everyone has this mentality of like four years is an amount, but, really, think about the holistic education process,” she said. “It's just one more year. … Just think about the opportunities that will open up after you take that co-op."