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Students Earn Cash, Experience Through College Co-Ops

Imagine designing clothes worn by Britney Spears and Diddy. Or envision helping NASA launch a satellite into space, or working for illusionist David Copperfield in Las Vegas.

Now imagine doing this while you're still in college, as if it were your real job.

That's exactly what students from the University of Cincinnati, Northeastern University and many other colleges are doing as part of their schools' cooperative (co-op) programs.

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Sometimes referred to as "professional practice programs," these curriculums are designed to give students real-world experience while earning money to pay for college and credits toward their degrees.

David Mackey, 22, a University of Cincinnati graphic design student, creates logos for Copperfield as part of his co-op. Because of the secretiveness of Copperfield's work, Mackey was cautious with his words.

"I've been handling all the graphic work," Mackey said. "I'm sorry I can't be more specific.""

Many of our students don't know what's it's like to work," said Lynn Lyford, vice president of the cooperative education program at Northeastern University. "(Co-op) not only gives students the experience, but it enhances what they learn in the classroom … They get evaluations, go to meetings. These students are considered employees of the employers' organizations."

Cincinnati (1906) and Northeastern (1909) were the first universities in the country to implement co-op programs. Many other schools boast similar programs, including the University of Pittsburgh (1910) and Georgia institute of Technology (1912). Cincinnati is celebrating their centennial this year.

"We are respected as the Cadillac of co-op programs," said M.B. Reilly, a public relations officer for the University of Cincinnati who wrote a book entitled, "The Ivory Tower and the Smokestack: 100 Years of Cooperative Education at the University of Cincinnati."

"When you have a program in place for 100 years, it becomes part of the culture."

Students work full-time for employers, Reilly said, and therefore, have a step up on other graduates when they enter the workforce.

"For graduating architecture students, you've pretty much worked as a full-time architect," she said. "We've had students launch history making rockets. There's nothing these students haven't done."

Most students are paid a salary for co-ops. Hourly wages range between $10 and $20 an hour, depending on the industry. Some companies pay for housing, as well. The University of Cincinnati reported that almost 4,000 co-ops earned a collective $30 million in 2005.

"It would take a huge endowment for universities to have the money for scholarships that is brought in by co-op," Reilly said.

Most students don't take classes or work other jobs during co-ops because the program is a full-time endeavor.

"(A co-op) is not like your traditional intern where you get coffee and wash the boss' car," said former Northeastern student Christopher Beasley, 23, who landed a job with NASA after completing a co-op with the company. "You interview like it's a real job."

"Unlike internships where you might go only one day a week, at co-op, you're treated as an employee," added Jacki Diani, the nursing co-op coordinator at Northeastern. "You're expected to be there all the time."

Diani teaches an introduction nursing class, helps students find placement and meets with them to discuss their progress.

"(We) help students assess the different opportunities, what they will get as a learning experience, and then reflect on their experiences," Diani said. "We work through some problems and sometimes students encounter challenges that are tough for them … it's a real rewarding experience."

She added: "We put a lot of responsibility on (students). We're not going to do it for them."

But some say schools without co-op programs are behind the times. Kettil Cedercreutz, associate provost and director of the professional practice program at the University of Cincinnati, said although these curriculums are a big responsibility, institutions not participating in them are missing out.

"Everyone else is still in the Communist era," Cedercreutz said. "Those are the institutions that are not doing the co-op program. They're not in touch with reality."

"I think it's a very, very big investment for universities to undertake," Diani said. "And that is what stops some of them."

Better Than a Summer Vacation?

Certain majors at Cincinnati, including engineering, require students to take part in co-ops. The program is optional for others. Some finish in four years, but those who do multiple co-ops typically stay five years.

Northeastern students undertake co-ops in 65 majors and three minors. Usually starting in their sophomore year, students go to class for six months, then a co-op for six months. The program is optional and takes five years to complete. Students there do three co-ops, which grow increasingly challenging.

A first co-op for marketing students, for example, would expose them to the field by working alongside sales people who analyze data, Lyford said. The second co-op would include "more customer interface," such as working in a call center, while in the third, students might be asked by the employer to develop a marketing plan. Of the students who have taken three co-ops at Northeastern, 100 percent of them say they would recommend the program, Lyford added.

Some use the experience to explore different fields.

"It's either very supportive, and it tells students they're on the right track, or, and this is very rare, they find out it's not for them," Diani said. "We feel that that's a good thing to learn early on."

Co-op participants are in the program for five years straight.

"While all your friends are off on summer vacation, you're at co-op," Mackey said. "But that's nothing in comparison to what I'm doing."

According to the National Commission for Cooperative Education, 95 percent of co-op students receive job offers when they graduate, and 60 percent take positions with their co-op employers.

"(Co-ops) are very attractive from the business perspective and from the student perspective," Lyford said.

"Basically they're trying each other out for a short time," Diani added.

Mackey said although finding a job with a co-op employer is always in the back of his mind, he hasn't planned that far ahead yet; he graduates in May 2007.

But "the first place I'll go is through the connection I have at co-op," he said.

In addition to cooperative education, many colleges offer experiential learning opportunities, which may not help pay for college but offer real-world experience that could lead to post-graduate job offers.

Experiential learning creates a bridge for students to engage in an activity or experience outside the classroom that increases knowledge, develops skills and clarifies values. One example of experiential learning is community service. Students can earn academic credit for work on community service projects, such as a literacy program, that requires the use of skills and knowledge acquired in class.

David Kolb, professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University, developed a model of experiential learning that includes four phases: Experience, reflection, forming concepts from those observations and testing those theories in new situations.

"Basically, experiential learning is the type of learning that emphasizes the role of the learners' experiences," Kolb said. "The focus is not on what I teach, but what the students learn. … The whole point of experiential learning is that if the student doesn't make connections to his or her real life, then they won't get it. And even if they do get it in the short term, they won't be able to apply it."

Critics of experiential learning argue that "there is so much to teach that I don't have time to have students experience it, or have time for students to reflect on it," Kolb said, referring to some professor or teacher concerns about out-of-the-classroom techniques. "It is a genuine problem. There's a lot to cover … But what's the point of covering it if the students are not going to remember it?"

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