How Co-op Can Help Launch Your Career

When asking why students choose RIT, one of the most common answers you’ll hear is the phenomenal co-op program. Before I dive into my co-op journey and how it has shaped the direction of my career, let’s talk about what it is exactly!

What is Co-op?

Co-op stands for cooperative education and gives you the opportunity to apply what you’re learning in the classroom to a meaningful work experience at a real company. It allows you to gain experience in various industries, early and often, which sets you apart from other candidates when applying for jobs in the future. Students can alternate co-op blocks with their usual academic semesters or do them over the summer. On co-op, you’ll spend a semester working in the industry and learning the ins and outs of life in your field of interest.

An RIT co-op in industry is:

  • Full-time (35 hours or more per week)
  • Paid employment
  • Directly related to your field of study or interests
  • One or two semesters in length
  • Tuition-free
  • Part of your academic schedule
  • An off-campus experience where a student is immersed in the workplace

Kim posing outside of Innovative Solutions headquarters.

My Co-op Experience

My major is human-centered computing (HCC), which sets me up for a career in the design and web development field. However, thanks to the co-op program, I've explored more than just those fields, and experienced different professional environments.

My first co-op was during the spring semester of my sophomore year, working in a software engineering role at Innovative Solutions, a mid-sized cloud computing company in Rochester. Here I learned a myriad of new programming languages and software specific to cloud computing (AWS, MongoDB, C#, .NET Framework), and worked with employees and fellow interns on real-world projects utilizing knowledge from my HCC classes. At the company, I was also able to explore design roles and what life was like for a project manager. It was here that I realized although I could code, I wasn’t passionate enough about it for it to be a life-long career. I discovered I liked the design side of software engineering and that I had an interest in management. These experiences helped me make my decision to minor in management information systems at RIT.

With the flexibility co-op’s offer in terms of what type of job you want and when you want to do it (during semesters or over the summer), I explored different jobs and types of organizations with no risk to make more informed decisions about the kinds of jobs and work environments I wanted to be in. I use the term “no risk” here to mean that I was never bound to one position, role, or company. I knew I would still be graduating on track and could also change my mind about my career choice later since this was just a temporary position.

Over the summer, I accepted an offer at Thomson Reuters as a Web Design Intern. However, as many things were, it was cancelled due to covid. I quickly worked to find another opportunity. After resources were shared with me through job postings from my academic department’s weekly newsletter, I ended up working as a remote front end designer and developer at a small Seattle start-up called Gaia Wearables. Here, I was able to really delve into the process of developing a product from start to end since I was able to get hands-on experience with both design and development. This experience helped me realize that what I loved about technology was more about providing the experience, organizing the process, and enhancing the interactions rather than building it itself.

Because of this realization, I decided that I wanted to explore more people-oriented careers still within technical fields. I also really wanted to experience working for a big-name company, and knew that RIT was a place where I could pursue that goal. After numerous applications and interviews, I landed co-ops at Amazon doing operations management and General Motors as a Customer Experience Intern, where I’ll get to work on vehicle interfaces. Working my way through different career experiences brought higher pay, too. This upcoming summer I’ll be an intern earning a full-time salary which I definitely intend to use to pay for college expenses like tuition and my apartment once I get back from co-op and into doing classes again. This is one of the biggest benefits of a co-op program: You are treated like a real, paid employee.

RIT student, Kristina, posing in front of Tesla headquarters.

Benefits Beyond Resume Building

RIT has one of the oldest and largest co-op programs in the country, which means it also has an extensive network of students and alumni. I’ve found that employers really do seek out RIT students because of the program’s reputation, and that RIT alumni have often worked their way up at their current company from starting as a co-op in college.

Co-op isn’t just for learning on the job. As a student, you’ll learn from other’s experiences, too. The president of a club I was in (New Media Design club) interned at Google prior to his senior year. When he came back from this co-op to finish classes, he was a resource for those around him. He shared his experiences, tips and tricks for being on the job, as well as pointers for how he landed the position. The best part? After receiving his degree, he received a full-time offer. Another one of my friends, who will be graduating this May, recently did a co-op at Tesla! These types of connections are important because networking (who you know, and what you know) can be so helpful for just landing an interview at a company. It is especially important at large companies since they have thousands of other student applicants applying for their positions. RIT’s co-op program, network of industry leaders, grads, and students gives us that first foot in the door.

Aside from being able to better shape my career path, build my resume to stand out to recruiters, and network, one of the best things to come about doing these career experiences early is that I got to practice the “soft skills” that are super important when interviewing for future careers. College can teach you the technical and analytical skills. But the soft skills–leadership, compromise, self-confidence, and teamwork are the skills that set you apart and can only be learned in a real work environment.

About the author