A New Kind of Co-op

Iain Zwiebel, a second-year biomedical engineering student currently on co-op with Johnson & Johnson, working remotely from his off-campus apartment.
Iain Zwiebel, a second-year biomedical engineering student currently on co-op with Johnson & Johnson, working remotely from his off-campus apartment.

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As Drexel University rounds out the centennial celebration of its co-op program this academic year, there happens to be more history in the making — unfortunately, this time, not by choice.

In March, Drexel students in the spring-summer co-op rotation were due to start new work placements in the same month that sweeping social distancing orders were enacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And along with most of the non-essential workforce of the country who can do so, these co-op students are currently working remotely, and doing so en masse for the first time in Drexel’s history.

“We had never really had it on the table before because of the nature of cooperative education and wanting students to have direct supervision in the general workspace or in the vicinity of that student… and there were concerns about whether or not that supervision would take place,” said Ian Sladen, vice president of Cooperative Education and Career Development. “Obviously that's something that's on the table now.”

DrexelNow spoke with students in this history-making cohort of remote co-op workers, and some of the employer partners supporting them, about what’s changed for them in their day-to-day due to the pandemic, and what hasn’t. As the future of the nature of work remains uncertain for employees across the country, these co-op students and their managers provided tips for all Dragons on productivity, flexibility and networking, and how to make the most of a remote co-op experience.

What’s changed

Due to the rapid onslaught of the pandemic across the United States, Sladen said that each stakeholder connected to Drexel’s co-op program exhibited resilience in terms of enacting the changes needed to continue its success this spring. This includes everyone from the Steinbright Career Development Center Staff, who transitioned to a virtual office in a matter of weeks with no lull in supporting students or employer partners during this unprecedent time, to the employer partners themselves who rapidly changed co-op positions from face-to-face to virtual, while providing the same level of supervision, training and support.

“I think the same applies to our students,” Sladen said of this collective co-op resilience. “It's a challenge to go into a brand-new work setting and not go on site or be in the same proximity as your supervisor and your new coworkers. I think our students have demonstrated a great deal of resilience as it relates to adapting to virtual onboarding and to a new work environment and to a new learning environment.”

For Iain Zwiebel, a second-year biomedical engineering student currently on co-op with Johnson & Johnson, losing the face-to-face nature of his orthopedic implant product development position has made the work different, but still rewarding.

“Had I been actually on site, I’d be doing a lot more mechanical testing and hands-on work both with the implants themselves and potentially working with surgeons to get their feedback in cadaver models,” Zwiebel said. “Since I’m not there, a lot of [my day-to-day work is now] data analysis, writing reports and verifying the biocompatibility and mechanical aspects of the product. It’s less hands-on than I would like, but it’s still interesting and I definitely feel like I’m learning a lot.”

“Had I been actually on site, I’d be doing a lot more mechanical testing and hands-on work both with the implants themselves and potentially working with surgeons to get their feedback in cadaver models,” Zwiebel said. “Since I’m not there, a lot of [my day-to-day work is now] data analysis, writing reports and verifying the biocompatibility and mechanical aspects of the product. It’s less hands-on than I would like, but it’s still interesting and I definitely feel like I’m learning a lot.”

“So that’s kind of the one good thing about all this is I saved myself two hours of driving a day, which is nice,” he said.

For Arun Balaji, a fourth-year BS/MS biomedical engineering student working at Pfizer, the plan was always to live at home in Paoli and commute to the company’s Collegeville site about 15 minutes away. But even though his living situation hasn’t changed, Balaji is missing all of the social and networking opportunities that working in the office can bring about.

“It’s just so different because I expected to be able to meet my team in person and form those work relationships,” he said. “But now, I guess I have to sort of do that online and still maintain and establish those relationships — get people to actually know who I am even though they can’t see my face, which is slightly harder, but I think it’s still been very manageable.”

Balaji is working as a business process analyst at Pfizer, a role he accepted over six other job offers for this co-op cycle. Though the remote work situation has made it hard to work directly with different teams and departments, something Balaji was looking forward to, there is one aspect of his networking plan that has actually been made easier.

“I’ve been able to reach out to different people in very different departments and hear what their work is like, what they do, how they go about their day-to-day, what are the challenges they face, and build that network so that later, if I’m interested in a different department, I can reach out to them and look for a job that way,” he said. “So I think that that part, in some ways, has actually become easier now that everything is online.”

Akua Afriyie Asibey, a second-year finance and business analytics student working at PECO as a financial analyst, had to manage the changes brought on from the delayed start of her co-op from March 30 to May 4. As an international student, this also meant updating her employment authorization through the Office of International Students and Scholars Services, and more paperwork.

Despite this change, Asibey appreciated that the company clearly communicated with her every step of the way.

“It took the pressure off and eased my mind a little bit just because I knew I still had something to look forward to,” she said. “So, I think they did a pretty good job.”

What’s stayed the same

Shannon Maher, a recruiting programs specialist for the Business Services Unit of Exelon Corp. who oversees the recruiting partnership for PECO and other Exelon subsidiaries with Drexel, said the company was able to seamlessly transition their hired co-ops this term to remote work because of the commitment of managers to find meaningful remote projects for the students to work on, as well as the innovation of their IT workforce, which provided a “virtual PC” option for student hires.

“It allows the co-op to take their personal device, their personal computer, and access a typical Exelon desktop,” Maher said. “So it's not like you're remoting … it’s an actual desktop with normal programs and basically all the same capability like you would typically see when you go into the office.”

Sladen said it’s innovations and commitments like these that illustrate the strong bond between Drexel and its employer partners taking part in the co-op program.

“Just the sheer number of employers who have successfully transitioned our co-ops to virtual and telework options with really no lead time to plan for this, I think, speaks to the importance of the relationship, meaning the Drexel co-op program has supported the talent acquisition efforts of our employer partners for decades,” he said.

And it’s these relationships, these bonds, that even a pandemic can’t break — and they filter all the way down to the individual student level.

Matt Rantz, a third-year computer engineering student working at Centauri as a full-stack web developer, is still feeling highly supported by his team members at the company, even without working alongside them every day.

“They have been really good about staying on top and making sure that I feel good with how things are set up, making sure that if I have any questions, they’re more than ready to answer,” he said. “While it’s definitely not the same feeling as being there in person, working with them virtually and remotely has been a really good experience so far. They’ve been really good about making sure I’m able to get the most I can out of this co-op given the situation.”

Making the most of the situation is a notion shared by HR specialists at Independence Blue Cross, who are working directly with remote Drexel co-op students this term to ensure they are having a great experience even without being in the office.

“We want to ensure that they’re comfortable, safe and able to do their work,” said Casey Geary, a diversity and inclusion workforce initiatives partner at Independence Blue Cross. “Not just, ‘Get it done and see ya later,’ but, ‘Are you having fun?’ Not every day is going to be a blast, but do they like it? I want to make sure they’re feeling positive about the experience.”

John Clayton, director of diversity, inclusion, and workforce initiatives at Independence Blue Cross added that department leaders are also doing creative things to keep co-op students engaged. Despite extending such extra support to the students during this cycle, Geary said that not much has changed from pre-pandemic times in terms of co-op students reporting problems or shortfalls with their positions, as well as vice-versa.

“Pre-COVID, we always said the co-op student’s time at Independence is like a six-month interview,’” she said. “During their time with us, we treat them as though they are full-time associates, and even though the experience has changed during the pandemic, we let them know, ‘You’re here for X amount of months… consider this as though you’re doing it to gear up for a full-time opportunity.’”

The fact that the co-op program is a feeder tool for companies like PECO/Exelon and Independence Blue Cross to find future full-time hires has likely made them more inclined to find ways to transition their spring-summer students to virtual co-ops, Sladen said.

“They certainly stand by the program and the history of the program,” he added, “but they also have talent needs in the future that will need to be met in a post-COVID-19 world.”

Maher agreed with this sentiment, adding that remaining an “employer of choice” for Drexel students was a big reason why the company retained all of its pre-pandemic co-op offers for this cycle.

“We don't want to take back an offer that we had promised, because we know that that student is making plans,” Maher said. “That student has student loans to pay off, family to potentially help out. … So, Exelon has really utilized our increase in innovative ideas and partnering with managers and our IT department to make remote work possible for these co-ops.”

How to adapt

Sladen’s biggest advice for students adapting to remote co-ops right now and in the future is to remain in frequent contact with co-workers and supervisors throughout the process.

“As we transition to kind of these virtual co-ops, the only thing that a co-op student would be doing incorrectly is to not ask questions, to not reach out,” he said. “If there's something you don't understand, make sure you continue to ask questions of supervisors and co-workers, as you normally would in a face-to-face setting.”

Consequently, many of the students in this situation now are finding that one of the hardest things to put into practice.

“If I were in the office, I’d be able to walk over a few feet and talk to a coworker about any problems I’m having or just chat with them in the hallway about different projects, whereas now if I want to talk to someone, I have to put it on a calendar,” Balaji said. “So, it’s made it more difficult to have those informal, off-the-calendar type conversations.”

“If I have any sort of question or anything I want to say, it’s an email to my boss or an instant message to the group chat,” Zwiebel similarly added. “It’s much more formal and kind of strange because you can’t really read the body language of the person.”

But Zwiebel has employed a great tactic to help him break the ice. After the all-hands-on-deck meetings he has with his extended team on Monday mornings, he’ll follow up with coworkers working on interesting projects to see if he can help out, even if it’s not really in his job description.

“I follow up with that person in an email right after the meeting and ask them if they can explain a little more about it, if I can be in another breakout meeting on that subject or just get myself into it in some way,” he said. “Everyone that I’ve reached out to like that has responded and been open to it and excited that I’m interested. So, that would be my one big tip.”

For Balaji, the biggest tip he has for fellow remote co-op workers is to get into good habits. This means enforcing strict guidelines on himself about what time to go to sleep, to wake up and to make sure he’s getting regular exercise.

“I think that that has helped me not get distracted by things or watch Netflix instead of going to sleep,” he said. “Those sorts of things are really easy to slip into if you’re not too careful.”

Asibey finds it important to ascribe a rigid structure to her work day, including taking short breaks but also meeting short-term goals related to what’s on her to-do list.

“This usually helps with motivation, especially when I’m not being physically supervised,” she said. “During those short breaks, I usually walk around or eat a snack just to regain energy or refocus and make sure that I’m not getting too distracted.”

She’ll also try to dress up each day a little nicer than she would on the weekend, which comes in especially handy in the case of impromptu video calls with coworkers. But even on the days when they roll out of bed and get to work, these students remain highly aware of the uniqueness of their co-op experience as it relates to the program’s 100-year history.

“I think, if you’re able to succeed during such a time, it says a lot about you and your work,” Asibey said of both herself and her fellow co-oping Dragons. “I definitely think that this experience is going to help you in your subsequent co-ops because it’s a story to tell, honestly.”

“This is one of these things that you just have to be as flexible as you can, to ride the wave while also advocating for yourself and doing everything you can to get the best outcome,” Zwiebel added.