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Co-op

New Strategic Plan Encourages WPI Undergraduates to Participate in Co-ops, Potentially Graduate with a Master’s Degree

The Career Development Center's Director of Career Services and the Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies are working together to ensure students have the opportunity to get the most out of their four years at WPI​

October 31, 2016
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It’s all about the planning.

When students think big enough and start early enough, their WPI undergraduate experience can include the university’s distinctive project experiences—and the more traditional co-op. A co-op, of course, gives students a chance to earn income as they explore career options and get real-world experience.

Or, for a smaller percentage of students, the right plan can mean graduating in four years with a master’s degree—and one that will makes an immediate impact in their career liftoff.

WP is initiating these new pathways for undergraduates—co-ops and accelerated degree programs—as part of Elevate Impact, the strategic plan. Among the goals set under the Strategic Plan is having 80 co-op participants by the 2017–18 academic year and providing a more accessible path towards a four-year BS/MS degree option. To date, 18 co-ops have been approved for 2016–17.

Kris Wobbe, associate dean of undergraduate studies, says the emphasis is on making co-ops more available and encouraging students to include a co-op in their plans for the spring of their sophomore year or around the IQP in their junior year. A co-op is a full-time paid work experience that lasts 4-8 months, usually a summer and either one or two academic terms. These provide the opportunity to gain significant work experience, get integrated into longer term professional projects, and earn money while getting professional experience; they need not add to the time needed to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Kris Wobbe

“The employer interest for co-op is definitely there,” says Maggie Becker, director of career services & professional practice at the Career Development Center (CDC). “Last year we had hundreds of co-op opportunities from companies wanting to hire WPI students. Students learn about these opportunities through the CDC system called Handshake (previously Job Finder). And there are other resources the CDC can coach students on.”

Significant progress has been made in support of that goal, with the streamlining of the office processes and procedures the biggest accomplishment, says Becker. That involved replacing the paper-based application with a completely electronic process. To streamline the process, the initiative team worked closely with the offices of the registrar, the bursar, student aid and financial literacy, academic advising, career development, residential services, and International House.

“This was a substantial effort. Maggie and Amanda Dionne [assistant director-co-op and career services] really got that organized,” Wobbe says. “When students are away on co-op, their absence has potential impacts that require information for or from all of those offices. International students need to consult with International House about keeping their visa status within federal guidelines. Students living in on-campus housing need to consult with Residential Services. Earning a substantial amount of money can have an effect on financial aid.”

Wobbe points out that more than half of WPI’s first-year students arrive at WPI with AP credit. “With some careful planning, AP credit can be used to the students' advantage, giving them plenty of room to do an off-campus project or two, and still manage a co-op,” she says. “The wonderful thing about the co-op, relative to projects, is that the co-op gives professional experience, while they’re earning money. Further, they’re not paying tuition but they keep their full-time student status.”

Becker emphasizes that a co-op is in addition to everything else undergraduates do. “Students can still graduate in four years. Some co-op students have even graduated early,” Becker says. “We know of one a few years ago who did an off-campus IQP, off-campus MQP and co-op, and graduated a term early. With proper planning in close collaboration with the Office of Academic Advising and the student’s faculty advisor, a co-op need not add any time to graduation.” 

Maggie Becker

This year the CDC held a co-op informational session with about 50 undergraduate participants. And in November there will be a co-op networking night for both employers and students. “That will be a great opportunity for students who are interested to learn about the benefits and opportunities from companies that support co-op experiences,” says Becker. “We’ve done networking nights before, but this is the first one dedicated to co-op.”

When WPI held GE Day on campus earlier this year, the company hosted a co-op informational session, Becker says. “For half of the program, Co-op Ambassador, Guillermo Rivera '18 (Robotics Engineering) and I talked about how co-ops work; in the other half, GE shared information on benefits, opportunities, and experiences students at GE have while on co-op,” she says.

Becker adds, “From an employer perspective, they want those co-op students so they can gain value from incorporating students into larger, and longer, projects, and assess fit. In addition, even if an employer has limited hiring needs at the time, they frequently will make exceptions for hiring co-ops or interns as they have seen the added value these candidates could bring.”

It is important to note that in addition to co-ops, internships are equally important. The CDC provides the same services and opportunities to students seeking internships, full-time jobs, research careers, graduate school, and other career options. 

“It’s about making sure students know about the co-op opportunity, and having them hear from people who had good experiences," Wobbe adds. “I think we’ve laid out what’s necessary in terms of processes and procedures. Now that we’ve built it, they need to come.”

Wobbe, Becker, and others will be reaching out to academic departments and programs in various majors to determine when in their curriculum would be most advantageous for their students to be off campus, whether for a project or co-op. From there, sample schedules could be placed in catalogues that would help students plan out timing for co-op and projects.

Planning for a four-year BS/MS similarly involves coordination with departments and programs, and the administration is ready to help, Wobbe says. “The four-year BS/MS option involves significant planning and working closely with both the Office of Academic Advising and the student’s faculty advisor,” she says.

If you know a student interested in co-op or BS/MS options, encourage them to meet with the CDC, the Office of Academic Advising, and their faculty advisor to discuss options. In addition, if you know any employers interested in posting co-op opportunities or learning more about the program, please have them email employer@wpi.edu