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Cooperative education provides a student the chance to test-drive a career before graduation. Unlike an internship, co-ops usually require a full-time commitment and are paid. While engineering and applied science students have traditionally completed co-ops, students across all majors are now finding value in obtaining co-op opportunities. 

*This article is sponsored by Rochester Institute of Technology 

Rochester Institute of Technology provides one of the largest co-op programs worldwide. According to RIT’s Office of Career Services and Cooperative Education, “more than 4,500 RIT students complete over 6,200 co-op assignments each year and are employed by more than 3,400 employers throughout the U.S. and abroad.” RIT’s approach to experiential education includes several options, including mandatory and optional co-ops. 

But why would a student with a creative or liberal arts major want to complete a co-op? 

The answer remains the same across all disciplines, regardless of the degree program. Co-ops provide the hands-on job experience needed to help propel a student’s career forward after graduation. 

Employment exploration 

Students who complete co-ops can count on developing professional skills that complement their academic major. 

“Co-ops are not required as part of my major, but a personal goal of mine was to get as much real-world experience as possible over the summer,” says Trisha Pickelhaupt, a junior studying Photographic & Imaging Arts at RIT. 

In the summer of 2019, she took part in a digital media co-op for a broadcast news organization owned by the Walt Disney Company. As with many entry-level jobs, students are expected to master the basics of the position before progressing into handling more in-depth tasks. 

“My specialty is video editing, but I wasn’t able to do that right away. I had to work my way up. I started with publishing content on their website. I cut broadcast clips and used their site’s editor platform to publish them. I had to catalog clips, learn about titles, and write descriptions. After I showed my team I was trustworthy, I started getting more exciting things to do.” 

Pickelhaupt’s co-op gave her more than just a taste of working in a fast-paced newsroom. She also received mentorship from an RIT alumna employed with the organization. 

“Once we figured out we had RIT in common, we really clicked. She mentored me and was patient with all the questions I had. She was also willing to let me assist on larger projects, like helping with interviews.” 

Establishing a network of professional connections is one desirable outcome of completing a co-op, in addition to giving students tangible experience to add to their resume or portfolio. 

“The most rewarding part was being given content to edit that would be seen by millions of people across different digital platforms.” 

Regardless of major, all co-op students can benefit from the advice Pickelhaupt had to give first-time co-op seekers. 

“You’re there to learn—take a lot of notes. Ask a lot of questions, and try and meet as many people as possible. I reached out to other professionals and asked people to talk with me which led to freelance opportunities.” 

Locating opportunities 

So how exactly does a student apply for a co-op? Most colleges provide students with access to a job database that includes co-op opportunities as a result of employer relationships developed by the career services staff. RIT student Elisabeth Ose-Kwame turned to Handshake, the system RIT currently uses as the central source of co-op job opportunities. 

“Handshake is like LinkedIn, but geared toward co-ops, internships, and job opportunities for college students. You can apply for opportunities by uploading your resume and submitting it straight through the portal,” says Osei-Kwame. Students can also speak to their career center advisors or search popular job websites for opportunities. 

As an Advertising and Public Relations major, Osei-Kwame was required to complete a co-op as part of her degree program. 

“I worked for Abiomed, a company that manufactures medical devices. My role included patient advocacy and corporate communications. Because I hadn’t spent much time outside of New York state, I chose to go to their corporate headquarters in Massachusetts for the semester to try something new.” 

Osei-Kwame brings up a great point—co-ops can allow students to relocate for a semester and experience a new environment. Most schools also provide international options for students as well. The pay students earn while on co-op helps offset living expenses. Some students are able to save enough money to help with tuition charges when they return to school.

“If you are considering relocating for a co-op, make sure you do your research and cover your bases. Look at housing prices. Ask your company if they offer a housing stipend. And don’t forget to turn to your school — they could help you find funding or a scholarship to help you out.” 

Interested in learning more about co-ops? Ask the career advisors at your school where to find opportunities in your area. And remember, just because your major isn’t traditionally associated with co-ops doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of this opportunity to get valuable experience.