The Delicate Dance of the Steinbright Co-op Advisor
This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019-2020.
Drexel University’s Steinbright Career Development Center has more than 20 advisors who are part HR professional, part operations manager and part life coach. That’s the necessary recipe to prepare more than 5,000 students a year for work experience through careful career planning, professional skill development and, finally, the delicate dance that is finding the perfect co-op opportunity.
Tracy Feld, senior advisor of Cooperative Education for Steinbright, answered a few questions on how she teaches both students and co-op employers how to tango.
What exactly does being a co-op advisor entail?
Co-op advisors work closely with students throughout a six-month recruitment process leading up to their co-op. They've already been prepared through the COOP 101 course. They all have a basic résumé ready to go. They've all had some instruction in terms of professionalism in the workplace, professional communication and interview skills. After that course, they come to their co-op advisor who goes over their résumé with a fine-tooth comb and helps them to bring out the very best representation of themselves.
Next, we discuss closely with each of them what they're hoping to get out of co-op, as well as what their career aspirations are and what their strengths are. We ask them their preferences on a whole category of factors that we call “work environment,” which for us involves everything that's not in the job description. That has to do not only with the physical environment — a corporate environment or more creative and laid back, a large or small company — but also things like “What kind of a commute are you comfortable committing to? What are your priorities with regard to compensation?”
We hope that co-op, in large part mirrors the real world, the real working world. Those work environment considerations are important things to consider when doing a job search, but a lot of times, students who don't have a lot of work experience don't realize how important those other factors are going to be. And so, they tend to think that the job description defines the job, but it's only a part of the picture. We spend some time helping them think about those things.
How do you help students find co-op opportunities that meet their goals?
We prepare them to do what we call a self-directed search, if they choose to do that in addition to using our recruitment system. So, if they want to pursue a self-directed search in addition to applying through our system, we help them to understand how to find opportunities, how to craft a cover letter, how to reach out to companies and how to follow up, which is very different from the process that they experience through our system.
They're invited and urged and welcome to come and see their advisor as often as they would like throughout the recruitment process because they're learning a whole lot. Things are moving quickly and they're experiencing lots and lots of new learning opportunities through that process, whether it's about communicating with the employer or about preparing for a very specific interview or considering different opportunities and comparing them and making decisions.
How does Steinbright vet co-op experiences?
We know that the co-op is of vital importance to students at Drexel. It's usually part of why they came here. It's a once-in-a-lifetime — or three-times-in-a-lifetime — experience, or opportunity, for them. We really want to do justice to that, and that's partly why the co-op recruitment process is six months long. We really want to give students a chance to fully explore lots of opportunities. But it's also why we are such hands-on partners with our employers. We want to make sure that they understand how co-op is different from an internship in that it's a much longer commitment of time from students. So, we hope that the students will be given the opportunity to grow over that period of time and that their responsibilities will grow as their skills and understanding grow. They're typically not engaged in classes at the same time, so the employer really will have the student's undivided attention and dedication and commitment. And students are gaining Drexel Co-op Units (DCUs), which are required for them to graduate, for the experience.
How does Steinbright help employers once they become co-op partners?
Advisors try very hard to make it as easy as possible to participate. It's a long process. We recognize that employers are giving their time even to participate in the recruitment, and we work hard with the employers on their actual job description in our system because we really know what students are looking for. Students want detailed information. They're making an important decision and they're pretty careful consumers when it comes to considering their options. And so, we work with employers to make sure that the job description includes all of the information that would be beneficial and compelling for students to have. That includes sometimes fine-tuning the actual job with them because sometimes they're looking for a combination of coursework and skills that is not a realistic expectation, for example. So yeah, we are hoping for the best for them. We really want employers, through this process, to land somebody terrific. And so, that means fully supporting them in the process to make sure that the information that the students are getting is accurate and compelling.
Are there any misconceptions about co-op or the process that students might have?
It's important for students to know that a huge part of their co-op education is the actual co-op search, and for that reason, they have to work hard to gain their co-op position.
They have to apply what they've learned in COOP 101 and in working with their advisor and bring their A-game and understand that it's a competitive process, just like in the real world. It can be stressful for students because it's new to them and the stakes feel very high. But the good news with that is that when it comes time to do a job search as they reach the end of their Drexel career, they are incredibly well prepared to do that because they've done it.
What are some issues students face on co-op? How do advisors help students through these issues?
Most of the issues that students face in their co-op position are things they could face in a real-world or in a permanent position, as well. And they usually must do some self-advocacy.
Except in extreme situations, they have to learn to talk to their supervisor. We don't usually smooth that stuff over for them. If a student has difficulty on co-op, they should immediately reach out to their co-op advisor. The co-op advisor talks it through with the student, makes sure that we understand what's going on and then we prepare the student to talk with their supervisor. So that's the first step. And then we stand ready to also talk with the employer if it's warranted.
It's a truly difficult conversation for most students. They don't want to do that. It's scary. It's not an easy conversation for anyone to have, never mind someone who may be in one of their first work experiences. Nevertheless, it's an incredible opportunity for students to learn that they can navigate it. We're here to help them kind of formulate a plan and even practice the conversation and make them feel that they're ready to do that meeting. Once they've done one of those and the sky doesn't fall and they are able to work through something, that's a transformative experience for a young person.
Would you say that even tough co-op experiences have their benefits to students?
Yes. If a co-op experience is not the best experience for a student, it's usually either because they're learning something about themselves in terms of what they want to pursue in life, which is a priceless lesson to learn, or it's because they had to navigate some challenging issues that come up in the working world. And it's an invaluable experience to successfully navigate something like that with the support of your co-op advisor — to have someone in your corner coaching you through something like that.
Even when co-op is not what you hoped it would be, sometimes that’s the best thing that could have happened. That is usually a very, very valuable experience. It truly is a foundational experience for students no matter how it goes.
What do you enjoy most about being a Steinbright co-op advisor?
We're very fortunate that those of us who hold these positions are the kind of people who are very student-centered. We are motivated and very fulfilled by the student interaction that this job affords. And, for me, that's one of the most rewarding parts of the job: building those relationships with students and helping them to learn all those things as they make their way through.
In addition, we have to understand the industries with which we work and network within them; as a co-op advisor, I am always learning. The world of work is ever-changing, as are the industries for which our students are preparing. To ensure effective and lasting employer partnerships as well as solid career advising, we stay connected and informed with interesting companies on a dynamic landscape. It’s fascinating, engaging work.
About the Drexel Co-op program: Nearly all eligible undergraduate students at Drexel University participate in the co-op program, balancing full-time classes and up to three different, six-month-long work experiences during their time at Drexel. Students can choose from hundreds of employers across the country and globally — plus endless possibilities through self-arranged opportunities.