In Conversation on Co-op: Engineers Bettering Philadelphia

Raisa Sharif, a second-year computer engineering student co-oping at SEPTA, and Taylor LaFountain, a fourth-year architectural and civil engineering student co-oping at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, interviewing each other

Taylor LaFountain (left) and Raisa Sharif interview each other. Photo by Jeff Fusco.

If you could ask a fellow co-op student anything about their experience, what would it be?


Two engineering students were tasked with this as they were about to complete their separate co-ops doing public works in Philadelphia and the surrounding region. Their conversation is transcribed below for other curious Dragons to learn a thing or two about each students’ journey, the similarities and differences between their experiences, and the key ways they learned and grew.


Raisa Sharif, a second-year computer engineering student, co-oped this fall/winter at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) with its new SCOPE (Safety, Cleaning, Ownership, Partnership, Engagement) Initiative, which provides outreach to members of vulnerable populations who seek refuge within SEPTA facilities.


Taylor LaFountain, a fourth-year architectural and civil engineering student, co-oped this fall/winter at Philadelphia Parks & Recreation in their Capital projects division, which carries out improvements to playgrounds, recreation centers and trailways at public parks in the city.


Here is their conversation:


Five Questions for Sharif


LaFountain: Since this is a new position and you're the first co-op, how do you see your position developing in the future after you leave SEPTA?


Sharif: That's a good question. One responsibility they’ll have would be to get into more specifics about what facilities to contact for homeless services. I did a draft of pretty much whatever I could find, but I know the next person will have to call each facility — there's over 200 that I found. They’ll have to get updated information about the hours and services the facilities offer because I've learned there's so much variety in it. Some only offer showers, others only food, and others only case management. Some are a mix of everything.


… My duties right now include creating tracking mechanisms to monitor records related to the three social service agencies that are providing SEPTA with outreach services, attending and taking notes for meetings and whatever special assignments come up — everything changes every day. As more co-ops take this role on, they’ll find new responsibilities that the previous person may not have noticed. So, it's definitely bound to evolve into something bigger with each co-op.


LaFountain: What professional skills do you feel you have developed while working at your co-op?


Sharif: I'm technically a computer engineering major, but this is a management position. I do have an interest in management, that's why I chose this. The skills I've developed here include, I’d say, a lot of Excel, which shows the progress from when I first started to now. I love seeing the progress, the improvement, in the course of the five, six months.


What other skills? I’d say communication, or projecting my voice. When I first started here, [my boss would] have to [keep asking], “Say what again?” So I feel like, now, I learned better how to project my voice and get my message out whenever I need to report something. Also, presentation skills. I’ve presented twice in two separate meetings with 30 people at least. I was nervous, of course. I realized how fast I speak sometimes, but that's just what happens. Of course, with every meeting, it gets better. I get a better understanding of what to say and what not to say.


LaFountain: This is my third co-op. Is it your first or second?


Sharif: It’s my first.


LaFountain: I've never had to present in a meeting, and that still is [scary]!


What is in your favorite part about working on your project at SEPTA so far?


Sharif: My favorite part is the people I work with, which is mainly my boss and the group of colleagues that we're close to. We call ourselves the “A Team.” … We’ve gone out for nice lunches together and they give good advice here and there for work or just life in general, though it’s unsolicited sometimes, but it's all welcome. I'm glad I found a little community here. I feel like that’s my favorite part, the people and being included in everything, knowing what’s going on and staying in the loop.


LaFountain: I agree. I think the people that you work with are definitely one of the biggest parts that can make or break your co-op. I found that mostly everybody wants to help you learn, and that's what you're there to do on your co-op. They're not expecting you to come in knowing everything. … It's a learning experience for everybody. The people at Parks and Rec are so nice and they'll answer whatever questions I have. It's really great to learn from them.


Did you feel prepared by your classes so far to complete your work on co-op?


Sharif: I’d say a bit, or like half and half, in the sense that during classes, my first year was completely remote and I had to pretty much figure out how I was going to manage my time. So, I feel like I learned how to use Google Calendar better and that helps here too, just for me to stay organized and like not get overwhelmed too much. I gained my organization skills in school My organization skills with school, I learned them there, but I enhanced it more here.


LaFountain: Has working at SEPTA altered your career path interest?


Sharif: I would definitely say I'm learning that I do like management and bringing people together to help a greater cause. So, I'm learning I like that aspect of it. But I would say I'd have to get a good engineering position before I can say completely that I'm going to change my path or not. But as of right now, I'm just excited to go back to class to learn what's actually in my field and hopefully it'll be good. I was already planning to add a minor in management.


Five Questions for LaFountain


Sharif: How would you describe your co-op search experience? What did you find interesting about your position when you saw it listed during your search?


LaFountain: That's a good question.  I'm not sure how many co-ops are in your major for computer engineering, but in civil and architectural [engineering], there's around 300 co-ops just when I click on “civil engineering” in [SCDConline]. It is overwhelming since the search by major is broad. So, I always narrow it down to one that's going to be in or around Center City, and then I look for something that sticks out to me that I'm interested in. So, for me, it's usually something with the environment or sustainability.


The second that I saw the Parks and Rec co-op, I was so excited because I love nature and bettering the environment. I was hoping that if I took the job, I would get to go out in the field a lot to take measurements and get on site to the parks and trails, while being a part of the team to improve them.


Sharif: I like how you incorporated one of your hobbies into the job. That's great.


LaFountain: Yeah, it's really great because it's a co-op that, while living in the city, where you’re surrounded by concrete, allows me to get out into nature.


Sharif: If you don't mind me asking, what round did you get your job in?


LaFountain: I got it in A round.


Sharif: Nice. I only asked this question because I got mine during round C. I was so stressed by that point because by the end of round B, my parents were putting so much pressure on me and everything was adding up. And I was like, “Am I going to get this?” I was so nervous.


LaFountain: Yeah, it is nerve-wracking, especially because of the ranking process. You don't know what the employers ranked you. You only know what you rank them. So, it is kind of a gamble if you have to go with a ranked position. It definitely works out in some cases, but I understand the pressure of having a few weeks to find the co-op before it starts. I'm glad that it worked out for you.


Sharif: Yeah, it definitely worked out for the best. I was so happy when I got this.


What is the biggest challenge you faced during your co-op? Do you have a mentor to turn to for support? How did they help?


LaFountain: I think the biggest challenge was figuring out the inner workings of [the department]. There are various permits, work orders, and other documents and processes that need to be finalized before construction can begin. Now that this is my third co-op, I've seen different ways that companies set up and organize themselves. … It's an adjustment to go from different standards and companies because at some point they can kind of get jumbled together. But everyone has been very eager to help me learn, and they never push away my questions. They say, “Don't worry. Anything that you want to ask, you can or should ask.” It's better to get to the root question first rather than doing what you think might be right, and then it being wrong. … You are only coming in for six months, so you try to learn as much as you can, but understanding the inner workings is something that just takes time.


Sharif: What was the biggest surprise in your co-op?


LaFountain: The biggest surprise was how often I would get to go out on site. There were some weeks where I would go out three to four times a week. I work every day in the office, so I think that gives me more opportunities to go in the field. It's really great because a project coordinator will be walking out the door and ask, “Do you want to come to the meeting?” Since there are many different responsibilities they have and projects going on at one time, it's a great experience for me to come with them on site. I get to see what's going on at a park, what a community wants in their rec center, and the types of programs that a rec center will have to benefit the community. It's really inspiring to see how many people care about taking care of their neighborhood parks, trails and rec centers.



Sharif: I wasn't sure what this position was going to be like, and if I would be in the field or in [the office]. It's a bit of both, honestly, especially in the beginning. I feel like that's when my manager was showing me around the most. My third day on this co-op, there was a special event that came up where [Pennsylvania] Governor Tom Wolf was coming to Norristown. So, I got to meet him, and I got a photo op, and I was in the news. It was fun!


Sharif: What’s a soft skill you’ll take away from this co-op?


LaFountain: One of the most important things I think I've learned on co-op is to never hold back a question. No matter if you're unsure of how to do something or you are on a site and you don't necessarily know everything that's going on, the only way you're going to learn is if you ask. Most of the time, they're willing to help and explain everything to you. It's better to have a whole understanding of the bigger picture, which you'll get by asking questions.


Sharif: What advice do you have for the next co-op student in your position?


LaFountain: My advice would be to try to get the most out of every day at work because there  are many people for you to help and endless tasks for you to be involved in. I feel like, on some co-ops, you could just do your minimum workload and get through the day. But, if you really strive to work on anything that interests you and let the engineers know that you want to be a part of things outside of the office too, it'll really enhance your overall experience at the co-op.