Advance Your Career (AYC) Helps Pandemic Co-op Students Take Professional Control

Jake Baron on a recent trip to California, where he will move and take a job with a major electronics company following graduation next month.
Jake Baron on a recent trip to California, where he will move and take a job with a major electronics company following graduation next month.

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“It’s probably one of the best things that happened to me, was to have that co-op cancelled,” said Jake Baron, a BS/MS computer engineering student at Drexel University set to graduate this June.

But back in June 2020, this notion would have never crossed Baron’s mind. Because of the pandemic, his third co-op at Comcast — where he had also done his first and second co-ops — had been postponed, and then eventually cancelled. He reached out to contacts for other opportunities he’d turned down, but their positions had either been filled or similarly pandemic-affected.

And Baron was not alone. Hundreds of other Drexel students found themselves last spring and summer with no way to earn co-op income or credit, through no fault of their own. It was a tough pill to swallow for a student like Baron, a Pennoni Honors College student and former STAR Scholar and Aspire Scholar who had always secured co-op positions in A-round and considered himself a good interviewer.

“It really just put you in a situation of, ‘I have nothing to do for the next 20 weeks and there's nothing I can really do about it,’” he said.

But out of this dearth of opportunity, this loss of control, was born the Steinbright Career Development Center module that one year later made Baron feel that having his co-op cancelled actually became beneficial to him. That’s because the module, dubbed Advance Your Career (AYC) and offered starting in June 2020 as well as through each co-op cycle since then, prompted Baron to reach out to alumni to network, and ultimately helped him land a prestigious full-time job in Silicon Valley upon graduation.

Erin Glaser, senior cooperative education advisor for educational enrichment with Steinbright, was tasked with creating the AYC course at the onslaught of the pandemic. Though the Center already offered its Strategic Career Planning and Development (SCPD) module for students who had trouble finding a co-op, they knew that an offering with more nuance was needed for students like Baron who were merely victims of pandemic circumstance. From this need, Glaser mapped out the first iteration of AYC, which focused on networking and skill development, but was also broad enough to apply to the spectrum of interest and experience of the more than 500 students who became enrolled.

“The goal of the module is just giving the students control over their professional development,” Glaser said. “This module, in a lot of ways, was hoping to provide them with some control over what seemed to be an uncontrollable situation.”

The module was hosted virtually on Blackboard, and entailed students researching their desired career fields, and conducting informational interviews with accomplished Drexel alumni to inform this research. Then, they compiled their findings into a professional development plan which they also discussed and workshopped with their peers and their Steinbright co-op advisors. Glaser said many students reached out with positive feedback about how AYC was set up, and that they appreciated the dynamic nature of the professional development plan as well as other module factors.

“A lot of them said it felt so good to just have a set schedule and a routine and to have an opportunity to think about those things for themselves,” she said.

This applied ten-fold for Baron. After a few weeks of feeling sorry for himself about his cancelled co-op, he jumped headfirst into AYC — thankful that Steinbright had come up with a novel solution for him to earn his co-op credit so quickly during a pandemic.

Though he considered himself a decent interviewer, he also knew he struggled with more indirect networking due to social anxiety. However, the proprietary process AYC offered students for connecting with alumni made it easier for Baron to set up several meaningful informational interviews.

“Cold emailing people, whether it be on LinkedIn or just through email, that’s kind of frightening to me,” he said. “Especially when you know it's just to ask for a referral or ask for a job, it feels kind of disingenuous, but it's the way the world works. So that was something, when I had saw that there is going to be an emphasis on networking [through the class], I was like, ‘OK, this is like actually something I could use some help with.’”

One of Baron’s informational interviews was with a recent graduate from his same BS/MS in computer engineering program. The alumnus works at a major electronics company in San Francisco that, due to company policy, shall remain nameless in this article. Speaking with this Forever Dragon not only changed Baron’s mind about seeking jobs in California for right after graduation, but helped him understand more about how to apply for open positions within the company that matched his expertise and interests. Following the informational interview, Baron started applying for multiple open positions at the company per day. And for a position he was highly interested in, Baron heard back two days later that he had landed an interview. About a month and several more interviews later, Baron had a full-time offer in hand.

“[It was great] being able to have that one-on-one conversation with someone there to kind of give you an idea of how the company is laid out, because it's really easy for your resume to get lost,” Baron said. “But if you find things that relate to your domain, I think it's a lot easier to get into in terms of like interviewing. So, some of his suggestions helped me pin down the org and the team that I wanted to work on.”

Glaser called setting up these networking opportunities as well as other facets of the AYC course “a real team effort.” She collaborated with such departments as the Office of Alumni Relations, Drexel Libraries and Drexel Information Technology, as well as advisors and career counselors within Steinbright. Not to mention, more than 750 alumni also volunteered to do informational interviews, including the recent grad who helped Baron.

“I think really that networking piece has been such an incredible part of the experience for the students, not only in what they're learning, but just in engaging in that practice and realizing that that's an important piece of how to grow as a professional and realizing it's not really that scary,” Glaser said.

Fast forward to present day, and AYC is still being offered through Steinbright, though Glaser said there are only 59 students currently enrolled due to the pandemic’s easing and co-op’s subsequent rebound. It is now a full six-month module that also focuses on self-care strategies and identifying core workplace competencies for students to work on. As the course continues, Glaser added that it remains an opportunity for students to “take control.”

“I think oftentimes when our students are coming to us, they feel like, ‘Well, I'm going to do these co-ops and then somehow magically on the other side, I'm going to get a job.’ But there is still so much they need to know about their field, their interests and their values. Many of them know so little about different career paths or the skills they need to be successful in those positions. They don't know what employers hire for the types of positions they are interested in. There’s so much they don't know, and so sometimes it can feel so overwhelming they don't even know where to begin. And so really, this puts them back in the driver's seat,” she said.

Baron is a key example of harnessing this control. He’s looking forward to graduation, and just a few weeks ago flew out to California for the weekend to go apartment hunting.

“I got to see the outside of the office, and now I'm really, really excited to get started,” he said.

Though he attributes it to luck and happenstance, there’s no question that Baron turned a frustrating lost opportunity into the best thing that happened during his college career — with a little help from Drexel.

“I think the Steinbright support overall was really good,” he said. “Looking back at it, it worked out perfectly fine. That's just kind of the way the world works.”