This morning I woke up before the sun to go talk to some high school students about co-op. One of my mom's friend teaches classes about choosing a career and getting ready for college, and asked me to come in and talk about my experiences. It was a little more challenging than I anticipated to step back from my role as 'designer' and talk candidly about the co-op experience in general.
(These glasses are my attempt at a relevant photo- they look sort of professional to me. Credit for the photo goes to blythe_d over on flickr.)
Some of the basic ideas:
-It's all about the people.
Sure, co-op is neat because you get to go be a real working professional while you're still in school. The most important thing to do while on co-op, though, is to make a good impression and grow your network. Be memorable so that you will stand out in your co-workers' memory. You want them to think of you, a few years down the line, when they're looking for someone to hire.
-Be the best employee possible.
When you're a co-op student, you are working from a disadvantage in many instances. You're new, you're temporary, you're the youngest person in the office, and sometimes you don't even know what you're doing. Since you have all that working against you, its incredibly important to make sure you have the basics down. Find the best-dressed person in the office, and use them as your wardrobe guide. Get to work before your boss, and leave after him (or her.) Don't log onto facebook at work. Give your employer every reason to love you.
-The job is only 70% of the experience.One of the greatest advantages of co-op, at least to me, is the opportunity to live and work in all different parts of the country (and world.) It's worth it to make some friends (other interns are perfect!) and go see what your new locale has to offer. This will not only help you have more fun, but it should give you an idea of whether or not you'd like to live and work in that city after graduation.
-Make the job work for you.
This one has a couple different meanings... for one thing, if your co-op employer offers you a wage that you don't think you can live on, it is sometimes OK to ask for a little more. I did this more than once, and it always worked out for me. It's important to save money or at least 'break-even' on co-op assignments. Co-op is your first really big step into being financially independent, and it's important not to screw up too badly (unless you like living on ramen, peanut butter, and the occasional PBR.)
The other meaning comes into play when you get into a position that you don't enjoy. It could be that your employer is giving you too much 'intern work,' or that your job is monotonous or menial. In those situations it is important to find the 'silver lining.' Take on a side project or start a new hobby outside of work. When I was unhappy at my job in California, I found a local sustainability conference and got my employer to pay for half my ticket. After the conference I acted as a 'sustainability coordinator' for the company. It ended up being a great diversion.
I am a firm believer in the benefits of travel. I spent one co-op quarter traveling (and would recommend the experience to anyone who has the opportunity.) I learned as much, if not more, during that quarter as I did on any other co-op assignment where I was working. My good friend Megan and I traveled throughout Europe, navigating streets we couldn't pronounce and meeting people from around the world. It was incredible, and completely a trip best done while in college (everything's cheaper for students, and students can tolerate a diet of falafel, cookies, and beer better than most.)
Beyond a big trip, though, co-op gives you the opportunity to make smaller weekend trips. When I was working in southern California, I spent a weekend in Seattle and a weekend in San Francisco. Both trips were pretty inexpensive; regional airfare along the west coast tends to be pretty cheap. Both trips opened up new experiences for me. Growing up in Ohio, it would have been an epic journey to San Francisco. While I was living in California, it was no big deal.
I could go on and on, but those are the basics, and in the long run that is probably all you really need. I enjoyed the co-op program immensely and believe that it is one of the best things my alma mater (the University of Cincinnati) has to offer. If you're looking at colleges, find one with a co-op program. If you're looking for interns, consider a co-op.