When the 450 graduates in the Class of 2011 collected their diplomas on May 26, a select contingency completed their Stevens Institute of Technology careers with more than a Bachelor’s degree. The 116 students enrolled in the Cooperative Education Program wrapped up their undergraduate academic careers with a job in hand and a wealth of professional work experience behind them thanks to “Co-op” which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.
“Many of our graduating seniors have dual degrees and full time jobs,” says Catherine Rooney, director of the Office of Cooperative Education, which employs five full-time staffers to help students interview, navigate the system, stay on track with studies, find company matches and recruit partner companies.
“Co-op gives students the opportunity to begin applying what they learn in the classroom in a real-world environment as soon as they complete their freshman year,” she continues. It is this combination of classroom education and practical, hands-on experience that is the hallmark of the co-op program.
Five years later they’re ready for a professional career. But not before completing a challenging journey that has helped them explore industries, apply classroom knowledge to real-world problems and build professional, networking and leadership skills. And they get paid competitive rates for doing so. Students enrolled in the co-op program in the past year earned an average of $16.48 per hour.
"We believe experiential education is an essential component of the student's journey," states Joseph Stahley, assistant vice president for Student Development at Stevens. "The integration of professional work and study through cooperative education is a distinctive part of the educational experience. Students are also able to engage in summer research and internships, two other forms of experiential education that is available at Stevens."
The co-op program began at Stevens with about a dozen students in 1986 as a means to add more value to the overall student experience. Since then, the intensive program has turned out 1,700 graduates and created placement partnerships with more than 150 companies. They range from start-up companies to Fortune 500 companies. Among co-op employment partners are Colgate-Palmolive, Datascope, Movado and PSEG.
About 25% of partner corporations are involved in the program due largely to co-op alumni currently employed at those organizations. They help spread the word and bring more companies on board because they know the benefits for both students and employers having experienced it firsthand.
“They know how it works,” says Rooney.
And they know how intensive it can be. Students commit to a five-year alternating work/study schedule, maintain a 2.2 GPA and good academic standing. The University helps by ensuring that appropriate classes for co-op students are offered when they need them. This way co-op students can stay on track for a five-year degree.
Co-op students enroll in the program prior to completing freshman year requirements and take their first work assignment during one of three entry points, says Christian Uhl, co-op coordinator.
“They start work as early as the summer after their freshmen year and begin an assignment right after finals, take the summer off and start in the fall or begin their first assignment in the spring semester of sophomore year,” he says. “They lock into a rotation of work and study for eight semesters of school. And as their classes get more difficult the assignments get more difficult.”
Participating in co-op is a big decision for students to make. Students have a typical freshman year then rotate five work assignments with studies over the next three years. They spend their senior year back in the classroom full-time. Though it is a commitment, co-op students are still fully integrated in the community, and are able to engage in all the campus life and activities Stevens has to offer.
Junior Ellie Kleinhans (’13) from Nantick, Conn., says the benefits of co-op are great: “Having three or four solid co-ops on my resume, as well as plenty of overall experience in the corporate setting, will really give me an advantage over my competition once I graduate. Co-op also allows me to experiment with different companies and paths of engineering, so I don't have to do that when I get out of school. I'll already have a better idea of what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
Kleinhans will begin her second work assignment this summer Gyrus ACMI in Stamford, Conn., where she will work in the Glass Fabrication Value System. Her first assignment was Stryker Orthopaedics in Mahwah, NJ. Kleinhans has chosen local assignments but other students have trotted across the globe to locales in the Netherlands, England, Spain, Germany and China. Keith Cassidy, a 2009 graduate, had an assignment with Movado in Bienne, Switzerland, as part of his co-op and now works as a global IT analyst for the company at its U.S. headquarters in Paramus, NJ. During co-op, he helped write a training program to help standardize inventory and accounting around the world. He then trained high-level executives on the program in Hong Kong and Bienne.
“If you don’t do co-op you miss out on a lot of things,” says Cassidy. “You get an extra year of undergraduate career and you get a lot of real work experience. Unlike a normal job you can’t change jobs after a few months. Maybe you won’t find what you like but you’ll find what you don’t like and that’s really important early on in your academic career.”
His work helped him earn the National Co-op Student of the Year from the Cooperative and Experiential Education Division of the American Society for Engineering Education.
During any academic year about 675 students, or a third of the Stevens Institute of Technology undergraduate students, are enrolled in co-op. It is one of the largest optional programs in the nation and one of just 13 schools accredited by the Accreditation Council for Cooperative Education.
Several unique features set the Stevens cooperative education program apart from others. At Stevens, students are encouraged to participate in up to three different co-op experiences. Additionally, students are able to take a course during their co-op terms.
“We also encourage the co-op employers to also be educators - part of the developmental process for the students is to see their employers as mentors who can help guide them on their professional journey,” explains Rooney.
Throughout the process Rooney says the students mature at a noticeable rate. “We have them from freshman year to senior year and every year we see them grow,” says Rooney.
Rooney and her colleagues will get to see firsthand how they’ve grown when hundreds of them gather June 4 to celebrate the 25th co-op anniversary with a reception on campus.