More and more, college students are realizing that top employers expect college graduates to have professional experience when they complete their degrees and apply for full-time jobs in their fields. But how does an undergraduate college student accumulate the kind of experience companies are seeking? With heavy course loads, active student lives, and limited opportunities for resume-worthy work experience, this is a tall order for the average college student.
Successfully meeting this challenge for many years, the Cooperative Education (Co-op) Program at Stevens Institute of Technology is well-known and distinct. An impressive 40 percent of Stevens students participate, and in recent years, co-op students have been standouts among their peers, several being honored with the national Cooperative Education Student of the Year and New Jersey Cooperative Education Student of the Year awards.
At Stevens, co-op students begin their first co-op placement after their freshman year, and they then alternate semesters in class with increasingly sophisticated full-time work experience, garnering up to five placements by the time they graduate. They work with industry leaders in a particular field, testing their career goals in different companies and positions, building impressive resumes, and earning money to help pay tuition and expenses.
While the benefits are unlimited and also unique to individual experience, a common positive outcome is that Stevens co-op students have no problem when it comes to preparedness for career placement at the end of their educational journeys. For co-op students like senior cybersecurity major Max Grifka, deciding to participate in co-op was a "no-brainer." In fact, the co-op program was one of the main reasons he chose Stevens when he was searching for colleges, and he's completely satisfied with the result. At the start of this academic year, Grifka accepted a job offer from Goldman Sachs and will begin his full-time responsibilities as an information security analyst for the company in July 2012.
"Co-op is as much (if not more) about gaining experience and confidence navigating the professional work environment as it is about developing your technical knowledge and skills," he said. "I worked in several high-pressure environments and with high-level executives. This kind of experience is invaluable."
Chelsea Bajek, senior environmental engineering student, expressed similar sentiments about her time as a co-op student. She gave high praises for the "meaningful work" she did in five placements at Hazen & Sawyer, a private environmental engineering consulting company in New York City.
"As an undergraduate, and early on, it was the same level of work they give entry-level engineers who already have a degree," she said. "Being entrusted with serious projects feels great. It builds confidence and a kind of knowledge you just can't learn in coursework alone."
Writing detailed specifications for clients, working with outside vendors, and analyzing current technical processes for cost savings and other benefits are some of the responsibilities Bajek exemplified as critical experiences for her career development. Among many advantages, her co-op work validated her interest and passion for creating innovative solutions for water and waste water treatment.
"We're always going to need access to clean drinking water, even more so in the future," she said. "My co-op work experience and my senior design project leverage me on the forefront of innovation, working toward energy conservation and cost savings associated with water treatment technology. I am truly grateful."
Bajek will also earn a master's degree in environmental engineering at Stevens by the time she graduates this spring.
Co-op student Daniel Bolella had placements in three different companies, and he validated that his co-op duties were anything but "busy work." At ADP, Hess, and the Burgiss Group, all companies in the metro area, Bolella's analytical, programming and coding skills, for example, were put to use to solve sophisticated problems with tremendous outcomes. Professionals at Hess are still using his solution for better estimating future electricity prices, he said.
Applying what he learned as a computer science major at Stevens and, in turn, bringing knowledge from the workplace back to his coursework and class projects, added great value to his education. One of his biggest take-aways as a co-op student was learning discipline, he added.
"With coding, for example, it's one thing to learn how to do it from a book or course, and another thing when you're on a real project for a real company. The expectations are high, the problems are complex, and while there are great mentors and mangers there, you've got to direct your own process too," he said. "My Co-op placements really taught me how to be a professional software engineer."
At Stevens, Bolella is also working toward a minor in history, is the music chair of the Student Government Association's entertainment committee, and is collaborating with a multidisciplinary team as head computer engineer developing the artificial intelligence for an Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) to be entered for the second year in a national competition sponsored by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and the Office of Naval Research.
Emily Hesselbacher is a senior biomedical engineering major whose four co-op placements at Stryker Orthopaedic and L'Oreal helped advance her on a path to success. At the beginning of the school year, Hesselbacher was happy to accept a full-time job offer from L'Oreal. She will be joining the company in an elite, fast-paced management development program right after graduation this spring. At L'Oreal, three leadership rotations, each for one year, will expose Hesselbacher to manufacturing, supply chain and finance areas of the company, positioning her for a high-level management position upon completion.
"My presentation of results from the co-op project I worked on at L'Oreal ended up being part of my job interview for a full-time position there," she said. "It was great because I was confident about my presentation, and I was genuinely excited because I liked and was proud of my work, and I knew the L'Oreal team well."
While her first co-op placement at Stryker Orthopaedic was in research and development (R & D), it was the experience in manufacturing at L'Oreal that piqued her interest the most. Hesselbacher is glad to have had the opportunity to explore different areas of focus and different companies while a co-op student, well before graduation. Biomedical engineering is a growing major, she said, adding that few universities offer it. Stevens was on the top of her list when it came time to look at colleges not only because Stevens offers biomedical engineering, but also because of the university's location and size. Experiencing a smaller university and program was a bonus, she said.
"Professors at Stevens know you by name. My co-op adviser was always available. Plus, I got to work in groups on projects with my peers and on serious design projects. In the real world, engineers work in groups on multi-disciplinary teams. I'm lucky to have had that experience in my Co-op jobs but also at Stevens."
Among other positives she experienced as a student at Stevens, Hesselbacher said she's also grateful for the opportunity to have taken a break from engineering one summer to take part in an exciting archaeological dig in Genzano, Italy, near Rome. She was also pleased to have served as chair of Stevens' chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, helping to enhance programs and increase participation in this important legacy at Stevens.
Engineering management major Steven Koch, who's also earning a minor in economics and a concentration in systems engineering, is finishing up his senior coursework and is another co-op student already celebrating a full-time position awaiting after graduation. Koch recently accepted a job offer from Johnson & Johnson and will start there in June 2012 as an associate analyst in the company's Information Technology Leadership Development Program. Koch is actually one of a special group of Stevens students who entertained more than one job offer. He also received an offer from Ernst & Young.
Of his four co-op placements and one internship experience, Koch said he enjoyed getting exposure to his field from a practical stand point, noting that co-op made him "grow up" professionally and in other ways. Hands-on experience at the Movado Group, Research in Motion and Crestron Electronics, for example, allowed him to apply the theory and concepts he learned in class to solving real problems. In addition, the experiences fostered important qualities like independence, determination and even management of personal finances.
"Essentially, co-op allowed my learning to extend beyond the text book," he said. "My work included work all along the information technology (IT) supply chain. I oversaw all steps in the distribution process, including software, cost saving, developing and reporting performance metrics. For me, co-op was an agent for a lot of change, professionally and personally."
Paul Peskosky set his sights on Stevens mainly due to the co-op program's excellent reputation. Five co-op placements later, Peskosky is now wrapping up his senior year as a civil engineering major and said he truly enjoyed the "trial by fire" and "down and dirty" experience he was exposed to in the co-op placements.
Peskosky's area of expertise and interest is construction and structural engineering, and he's thankful for his co-op jobs at Hayward Baker and Boswell Engineering. He is especially fond of his work at Hayward Baker, a specialized geotechnical, large-scale construction company based in New Jersey.
"It's the best work you'll never see," Peskosky joked. "The pilings and such for skyscrapers. The construction that has to withstand forces like earthquakes and hurricanes and in all kinds of terrain, and on budget and on schedule."
At Hayward Baker, Peskosky served as a field engineer and took on project engineer responsibilities when the opportunity arose one month into one of his co-op placements there. He enjoyed the work so much, he even took on a night shift for a period of time to learn more.
There's nothing about co-op Peskosky sees as too much of a challenge. In fact, he said he's like the co-op ambassador, if such a role existed.
"I truly think co-op is the best thing at Stevens," he said. "Not that everything else isn't great, but I mean I just can't see students not at least exploring it if they can."
During his career at Stevens, Peskosky also found time to be invovled on campus. For example, he helped rejuvinate Stevens' chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, promoting civil engineering across campus with intriguing events like a tower building contest in which winners received iPod Shuffles.
Senior civil engineering major and co-op student Michael Consoli is also earning his master's degree in construction management. One of the great advantages of being a co-op student at Stevens, he noted, was that he was allowed to take night classes even during the alternating semesters he was working full-time on co-op assignment. Like many students, this allowed him to maximize his time at Stevens, and it paid off.
Consoli began his career at Stevens as a mechanical engineering student, but his first mechanical engineering co-op job made him realize that civil engineering was more in line with his interests, and he had the flexibility at Stevens to change his major.
"Getting your feet wet in the field before it's too late to change your mind is really key," Consoli said. "I'm glad I was able to test the waters with mechanical engineering and then change my path very easily. My remaining co-op placements were in civil engineering, and it was clear then that I'd made the right choice."
Like other co-op students, Consoli said that doing work that affects a real business is very rewarding and builds confidence. His experience at Tishman Construction was especially rewarding, and he's still employed part-time there as he finishes up his senior year at Stevens.
"Being involved in the life of an entire project for a company is amazing," he said. "I even inherited roles at the company that became available as their regular employees moved on or into new ones. Essentially, I truly felt like an integral part of the organization, learning about and affecting the day-to-day work and getting a feel for what it's really like on the job. It's important to experience the successes and failures of the business firsthand and to actually apply what you've learned in class.
Consoli highlighted how rewarding it is that the co-op experiences and his coursework at Stevens reinforced each other. It's a win, he said, all around.
"At Stevens, you have amazing professors, great design and course work, and at the same time, you get a solid career-orientation and worldliness you don't get at other schools," he said. "Especially as co-op student."
Erik Thompson joins his co-op peers in noting that he was treated like any other full-time employee (and paid well) at his co-op placements. He made major contributions and even earned employee benefits. A senior electrical engineering major who will also leave Stevens with a graduate certificate in wireless communication, Thompson will be entering a career in electrical engineering with a highly sophisticated resume due to his co-op work. At SafeFlight, for example, he was involved in sophisticated problem solving in all aspects of the development of a new "Angle of Attack" sensor, which is a mechanism that keeps airplanes from stalling. And Picatinny Arsenal gave him a chance to hone his computer programming skills. He made a major contribution by translating code he'd found on an open source library into the company's programming language and earned much respect for doing so.
"The reality is, employers expect something beyond the classroom," Thompson said. "Knowing that, the co-op program and the Design Spine in the engineering programs were the top reasons I chose Stevens. These are especially great advantages for Stevens students. If I look at my before and after resume alone, I see an amazing transformation."
Thompson's sights are set on a career in wireless communication research for the defense industry. At Stevens, Thompson was also busy serving as the radio station's program manager. His senior design project involves implementing a repeater on Steven's Howe Center, a device that extends the range of weaker radio signals in and around Hoboken. A member of the Anime and Hobby Robotics clubs and the Gaming Society at Stevens, Thompson also started up an amateur radio club.
Learn more about the co-op program here.