Drexel Rallies Around Co-op Students Affected by the Pandemic

When spring/summer co-op students started to lose positions due to the hardships brought on by COVID-19, several University colleges, schools and departments heeded the call to create new positions and provide funding to support this Drexel rite of passage.

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When faced with hardship, it’s a natural inclination for many to pose the question, “What can we change?”

But in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — which closed Drexel University’s campus on March 20 and caused many industries to move their workforces remote both in the Philadelphia region and across the country — that question becomes obsolete. No one could change the non-essential business shutdowns or stay-at-home orders put in place to curb the spread of the virus, nor the job market changes or economic hardships that came along with them.

As these changes and hardships began to trickle down and affect Drexel students on the spring/summer co-op cycle, and once locked-in positions were subsequently postponed or cancelled, University faculty, staff and other affiliates posed a different question, as change wasn’t an option: “What can we do?”

The result? Dozens of new co-op positions with faculty and University-affiliated employers were created, hundreds of thousands of dollars to help fund these positions were offered up, and students hastily applied for and accepted these grassroots, plan-B opportunities.

“Given the impact COVID-19 has had on the job market, the Steinbright Career Development Center has engaged with all of our stakeholders in an effort to expand employment opportunities for our co-op students,” said Ian Sladen, vice president of Cooperative Education and Career Development. “Drexel’s colleges and schools and the Office of Undergraduate Research have been a major part of this effort resulting in the development of meaningful, paid research co-ops in areas ranging from humanities to engineering.”

Here are some of the examples of these efforts, the University representatives who spearheaded them, and the students who reaped the benefits.

New positions

Liza Herzog, PhD, and Scott Quitel — both directors within the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship — remember when they decided to take action. Someone in their department had sent around a list early on in spring term of more than 20 students affiliated with the Close School who had lost co-ops. The two colleagues, who are founder (Quitel) and interim executive director (Herzog) of LandHealth Institute, had already taken on a few co-op students this cycle, as Landhealth had since 2016. But they knew their nonprofit — an environmental justice organization based in the West Parkside neighborhood of West Philadelphia which encompasses ecological restoration, community-driven land revitalization, environmental education and a native plant nursery — could benefit from more co-ops, so they set out to hire more students still searching for pandemic-proof opportunities.

“We quickly got strategic about it and said, ‘We have these growth needs, we have these growth opportunities, there’s a ton of work for people to do,’” Quitel said.

Herzog and Quitel took on a total of six co-op students this cycle, and not all were from expected academic backgrounds in biology or environmental engineering. They worked with students from a variety of majors to create job descriptions that matched with their individual strengths and career goals, as well as LandHealth’s areas of desired growth.

“The decision was made because LandHealth has needs that are complementary to what students who didn’t have positions were looking to do, and because we thought we would be able to provide for students a ton of exposure,” Herzog said.

Student projects this term have included nursery management, development tasks like grant research and building a membership program, as well as socially distanced events and educational programming, from hosting outdoor markets to launching a podcast, all of which aimed to fulfill Landhealth’s mission despite parameters set forth by the pandemic.

“We’re getting real stuff, they’re getting real stuff,” Quintel said of the students’ experience. “They’re watching our LandHealth followers grow out of this. They’re watching our plants get sold, and they have a direct hand in that.”

Each student is also getting a monthly stipend for their part-time work this summer, which pre-junior economics major Bridget Depenbrock said she is grateful to receive, especially in a nonprofit position. Depenbrock applied for a co-op with Landhealth after her original position at a law firm was cancelled, and was intrigued by the development and event associate position through which she’s been learning about nonprofit marketing and grant writing.

“I want to get as much experience with my co-ops [as I can]. I don’t really have a set idea of what I want to do, so that’s why I’m very open,” Depenbrock said. “That’s kind of what attracted me to LandHealth, and so far I’m really liking it.”

Brea Heidelberg, PhD, similarly did not want her entertainment & arts management (EAM) students to lose out on the meaningful work experience co-ops provide just because of the pandemic. As associate professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and the EAM program director, Heidelberg wanted to step in and do something. So she started reaching out to industry contacts, friends in the field and any organizations she could think of to help coordinate new co-op positions when her students’ original opportunities were cancelled.

“We have a lot of awesome students that are really high achievers,” Heidelberg said. “We had a student that was accepted to co-op in Japan for the Summer Olympics. We had students that were accepted to really prestigious summer festivals. And all of those things were canceled and along with those things, their co-ops.”

Some of the organizations Heidelberg spent the spring setting up new co-op positions with include Newark Symphony Hall, Americans for the Arts, and Circadium, as well as with Westphal College itself. Then, the more than 24 students started their jobs this summer, as EAM students do two summer co-ops over their four years at Drexel.

“It was really about building connections with local arts organizations or area arts organizations or deepening existing relationships in order to best serve the students,” she said. “I'm really grateful to all of the people that have either been like, ‘I’ve never done this before,’ or ‘I've never done it remotely,’ and have been super generous and game to figure it out together.”

Heidelberg commends her students for their flexibility in this time, noting that adapting to change is nothing that those working in her industry aren’t already accustomed to.

“There was definitely a lot of disappointment. And I tried my best to allow students to honor those feelings,” she said. “But, by and large, EAM students as arts managers, we are always flying by the seat of our pants in most of our work. The EAM slogan is ‘we manage,’ and you can take that with either tone.”

Where students on co-op this term were asked to adapt to changes brought on by the pandemic, so were the faculty who pledge to help them by creating new positions and means of funding. This was the case in the College of Engineering, which utilized the existing infrastructure of its Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program — which helps Drexel students link up with faculty on long-term research projects based on a national model — in order to provide meaningful experiential education opportunities for nearly 30 students whose co-ops were cancelled.

“We started with a call to the existing mentors that we had for the VIP program as well as to all of our college faculty to try to identify projects that could serve this need,” explained Kapil Dandekar, PhD, the E Warren Colehower Chair professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, as well as associate dean for Enrollment Management and Graduate Education for the College of Engineering. “I was pleasantly surprised to see that it just came together so quickly. I think our faculty were really stepping up, and even though we all had a lot of stuff that was going on at that time making our own transitions to online education [and research], I was very pleased to see how much interest there was among the faculty in trying to provide these placement opportunities for students.”

Dandekar said Engineering faculty who raised their hands found meaningful project-based work for undergraduate co-ops to do remotely in these part-time positions, like building computational tools, analyzing data and writing papers or proposals. Although these alternative placements are just one of the many less-than-ideal situations created by the pandemic, Dandekar said he is happy the college could jump in to provide a safety net for its students, and help solve a problem.

“Engineers are problem solvers,” he said. “When we see a problem, we try to solve them using the tools that we have. We have some good tools in our toolbelt with the VIP program and the culture that we have supporting undergraduate research in the College of Engineering. We were just eager to use that to try to help out the students when things were getting difficult.”

New funding and opportunities

Whereas several departments and individuals at Drexel helped with the co-op placement conundrum caused by the pandemic, others lent a hand in a different way: providing funding for what would otherwise be unpaid positions.

For instance, the Office of Undergraduate Research has awarded nearly $100,000 of funding to 26 students conducting faculty-sponsored co-ops this cycle, including several of the aforementioned engineering students. Jaya Mohan, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said because her office had planned to delay its annual STAR Scholars program to start later in the summer, that freed up money in their operational budget at the end of the fiscal year to support these students seeking plan-B co-ops.

Nearly every student who submitted an application for this funding was covered in some way, Mohan added, with most receiving a total of $4,000 over the course of the cycle.

“I think that these research co-ops are really contributing a lot of value to [the students’] education in terms of the research experience that they're getting, and in terms of sort of making the most of this co-op cycle,” Mohan said. “These faculty are also working hard to pivot their research agendas to make sure that these students are getting really valuable experiences in lieu of what they were hoping to get otherwise in co-op. So they're really doing a lot of work, and I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to support them.”

One co-op student benefitting from the Office of Research funding is Maggie McCurdy, a third-year environmental engineering student also pursuing a master’s degree in peace engineering. McCurdy had not one, but two international co-ops thwarted by the pandemic: one working at a refugee camp in Lethos, Greece during the spring, and another with the Peace Innovation Institute at their offices in the Netherlands.

But thankfully, the Institute kept McCurdy on for the entire co-op cycle to work remotely on a project called Peace X Global Response, and more than 20 additional Drexel students were offered co-op positions to work on the project as well after previous opportunities fell through. McCurdy credits this to the Institute’s already collaborative relationship with Joseph Hughes, PhD, distinguished university professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, who is also faculty for the Peace Engineering program. The goal of the Peace X Global Response project, McCurdy added, is to connect volunteers and citizen scientists to people all around the world to do experiments and collect data related to COVID-19.

“We’re focusing on the positive peace interactions, so the idea of positive peace can be anything from individual interactions … or they can also be community-wide,” McCurdy said. “So that’s what I think really helps me still stay positive throughout the pandemic, is I’m hearing all of these really positive examples of people trying to take care of each other and get through this time of crisis together.”

The idea of getting through this crisis together was something also applied in the College of Arts and Sciences (CoAS). According to Ira Taffer, PhD, associate dean for Faculty Advancement, as soon as news started coming in about students losing co-ops or experiencing financial hardship due to the pandemic, Dean Norma Bouchard, PhD, put her Dean’s Excellence Fund to excellent use: converting it to both a co-op fund and an emergency fund for students losing out on money from part-time and work study positions.

Because of this, the college was able to provide $4,500 of funding each to 17 CoAS students co-oping with Drexel faculty or external non-profits.

“Obviously co-ops are very important to the Drexel brand,” Taffer said. “As these lists came out and we saw the number of people whose co-ops were canceled … we saw the impact coming quickly and started saying, ‘How can we help?’ That was the seed for doing this. It just seemed like most students are counting on some income, if not from co-op, from temporary jobs that help the meet their daily living expenses.”

“How can we help?” was the driving force for all of these creative efforts on the part of Drexel leaders, faculty and staff. And it’s this creativity that’s needed to see the change we crave out rise out of the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“My own personal philosophy for this time is that, yes, being in quarantine and being in lockdown is difficult in a lot of ways. It is certainly challenging the ways that we always have done things and the ways that we have always run programs. But I think that there is room for creativity in that,” Mohan said. “If we have to rethink the way that we deliver some of our programming, then why not kind of throw everything out the window and create something [new]. … I'm trying to move forward through this time with that as a guiding principle, thinking that different is not worse, it's just different. And it's helpful to know that there are other people in the Drexel community who feel the same way.”