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Information Technology
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The Unexpected Value of Co-op

Josh Vickerson on Monday, 24 March 2014. Posted in Co-op

It’s 7 o’clock Monday morning and I’m rolling out of bed. Despite the early hour, I’m wide awake and eager to start my day. A fresh start, a whole new routine, and a whole lot of learning await; it’s the start of a new semester. By 8:15, I’m dressed, fed, and bundled against the cold, coffee in hand. I clear my car of snow, climb in and head off to work. You see, I’m not taking classes this semester. I’m a full-time student, working full-time. I’m on co-op.

I’ve been waiting for this semester ever since my very first visit to RIT when learned about the co-op program. In order to graduate, I must work two full semesters of co-op. That’s full-time, paid work in my field. RIT is requiring me to graduate with a full (academic) year’s worth of work experience. It’s this very requirement that made RIT so attractive to me in the first place. There were other factors too, of course, but the idea of getting to experience real work environments in my field before graduating meant a lot to me. Now that I’m finally here, I realize I underestimated its value.

What I believed was that by working a “real” job in my field, I’d be learning first-hand from experienced professionals, augmenting my work in the classroom. Which is true. What I didn’t expect was that, as a co-op worker (basically a paid intern), I’d be pushed to learn on my own. Let me recount the first few weeks I’ve spent on co-op.

I’m working for Brand Networks as a front-end web engineer. In the simplest of terms, this means I’m building websites for Brand Networks’ clients. Brand Networks is a social marketing company based in Boston, MA. Their primary location for engineering is here in Rochester, however. The office is actually right next to High Falls, which I’ve written about before.

My first day was pretty standard; all the paper work and orientation stuff that comes with being hired. On my second day, however, I was put right to work. Completely on my own. I was literally given a PDF and told, “make this website look like this PDF.” No other instruction, no additional guidelines, no introduction to the existing code or coding style guidelines the team used. While this was a little daunting at first, it was, in reality, a display of trust, and this became a comforting thought as I moved forward. The people I’m working with trusted my abilities enough to not only hire me in the first place, but to let me simply get to work (asking questions when necessary).

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The view from my desk is just a modern cube farm. And I love it.

This display of trust extended into the second week when a new project was pushed my way. I was asked to build a web application in a programming language I don’t know (C#), using a design paradigm I’m not at all familiar with (MVC). This was, again, incredibly daunting. But now that I’m in the middle of that project, I’m more comfortable. In this short time, I’ve learned the real value of co-op (and a little bit of C#, though the project was actually switched to Node part way through).

So far, I’ve used a good chunk of my knowledge from the classes I’ve taken, but not the parts you’d probably expect. Sure, I’m using HTML, PHP, mySQL, and the other web technologies I’ve been exposed to, but what I’m actually using the most is the ability to approach a problem and contrive a solution. As much as I’ve learned to write code, I’ve been taught to learn and taught to approach problems. And this is where I’m seriously seeing the value of co-op, and of my course work.

I can recall plenty of times I sat in a classroom, going over some bit of code or some concept and thinking, “I’m never going to use this”. And so far, I’ve been correct. That doesn’t mean I won’t ever use those things, but there are a lot of things I definitely won’t use very often. But the process of having learned those things put me in the position I’m in now. I can be given a task or a problem and I know how to work through it. The process of learning is much more important than the actual content.

I will admit I was quite nervous on my first couple days. It can be seriously intimidating to be put in a new environment and be tasked with something without much instruction. But a few weeks in, I’ve surprised myself. Beyond learning a little bit of a new programming language and some software design paradigms, I’ve gained a new perspective on the work I’ve done, the work I’m doing, and the work I will do in the future. That’s a component of co-op I did not expect.

Of course, co-op experiences can vary dramatically between companies and industries, but good or bad, the shift in perspective is exceptionally enlightening. Co-op is an opportunity to see what your industry is really like, and to grow as a professional. Regardless of your field or your situation, there are benefits to co-op you will not expect, and you cannot anticipate. Every experience in and out of the classroom prior to co-op will shape you, and a co-op will change the way you see your unique set of experiences.

So while you mull over your options about where you want to attend school, keep co-op in mind. RIT’s co-op program is incredible, but it’s not the only one. No matter where you decide to further your education, I hope you choose a school with a co-op program. No matter how valuable you may consider it to be now, I can assure you you’re wrong. The true value of a co-op isn’t apparent until you get there.