Co-op Operative: Universities are not career factories

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I am not in university to get a job.

Those are difficult words for a co-op student to say. But there it is: I am not in university to get a job.

Being in Wilfrid Laurier University’s competitive co-op program allows me to get hands-on experience in addition to my combined honours program in English and communication studies. It is not, however, my priority, regardless of what my co-op co-ordinators think.

Laurier is bursting with business-minded folk. There are the teems of undergraduate business and economics majors all over campus. (Their souls, however, remain twinkling in the sparkly floor of the School of Business and Economics in the north-west corner of campus.) To the majority of them, understandably, university is about getting a job. To the co-op co-ordinators, regardless of their academic background, university is about getting a job.

I cannot blame them for believing that: they run a program dominated by business and economics students, and other wealthy students who can afford the outrageous co-op fees, and who can stop working at their minimum wage part-time job long enough to work as a low-paid (or, in this economy, unpaid) intern for a term. Students take these internships for the valuable business experience while mommy and daddy foot the bill for all of their expenses.

The idea is that, upon graduation, they’ll have enough experience to land a high-paying job in the “real world” (private sector) that will allow them to continue living in the upper-middle class. Sounds lovely, but it doesn’t take into account the option of further academic pursuits or that the student’s interests may lie in less profitable areas.

I cannot pretend that I am not privileged; my upper-middle class mommy and daddy are most certainly footing the bill as I sit here in the basement of a public school board for the summer, working away (or writing an unrelated article, depending on how you look at it) for $14 per hour, which, I’ll admit, is a fantastic salary in this “economic climate,” but hardly enough to keep a roof over my head, food on the table and booze for the weekends.

But I digress. Throughout my second year at Laurier (my first year in the co-op program), I was frequently frustrated with the rumour that universities are career factories, continuously pumping out eager, money-hungry employees. Co-op co-ordinators and potential employers constantly expected me to drop everything, including my classes, to attend workshops and interviews.

I am not a career woman in training; not yet. I am a student, first and foremost. There are only so many years in one’s life allotted to freedom and the discovery of one’s passions for learning. I intend to use them well.

I am only one student. I may be an anomaly. However, the anecdotal evidence I have inadvertently collected from my fellow co-op students suggests that the majority of undergraduate students, while they enjoy their internships and appreciate the assistance of their co-op co-ordinators, would like to be treated as more than a number.

Workshops and interviews are not bigger priorities than academic engagements.

Being passionate about extracurricular activities is more important than collecting impressive skills for resumés.

Finding an exciting, interesting internship is imperative; finding employment in order for the co-op program to keep its success rate high is not.

My youth and my education are precious. I view my internships as a continuation of my education – a refining of my art, if you will. Co-op co-ordinators and employers alike need to realize that I will not abandon my art for the allure of the Robert Bordens (doesn’t quite have the same ring as “the Benjamins,” does it?).

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About the author

Jocelyn Smith is currently in her third year of a combined honours arts in communication studies and English, with a minor in women's studies, at Wilfrid Laurier University. She says the most rewarding experiences of her life have been volunteering at Laurier's Women's Centre, becoming involved in theatre and learning that there are people willing to read her writing. Her true loves are reading and writing and her career goal is to find a way to be paid to do both.