This is one of a regular series profiling the Drexel Co-op program, which celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019-2020.
Most would agree that it’s rare for a college junior to know exactly what they want to do for work upon graduation, right down to which office of the State Department they’d be interested in joining. This is the case for fourth-year global studies student Nicole Kalitsi, who says Drexel University’s co-op program is responsible for her acute clarity.
But it wasn’t her first co-op with a congressman that provided this razor-sharp focus. Rather, it was her second co-op as the diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance that made her realize how much she valued working directly with people on worthy causes, and how important it was for that to be integrated into her future career.
“I wouldn't have known any of this information or been able to do any of this stuff and get this precise idea of what I want to do and how to go about it without co-op,” Kalitsi said. “I think it's really amazing that I'll be able to actually be successful or make successful strides toward these goals once I leave Drexel because of all the stuff that I've done so far.”
It’s also rare that what Kalitsi has accomplished even before her final year of college includes pioneering a new role for a membership and service organization that connects more than 400 affiliated arts and culture groups in Philadelphia. But that’s exactly what the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance asked Nicole to do from her first day on the job in April 2018.
“That co-op, I really loved, especially because it was so hands-off and nobody had done the position before me,” Kalitsi said. “There wasn't somebody who was in a more senior position than me who had done it before who I could rely on. For the most part it was me, on my own, coming up with stuff, doing the research, pitching the idea, seeing what was possible and then going from there.”
From day one, Kalitsi knew this work experience would be much different from the congressman’s office, where the job was very prescriptive and internal politics inhibited or slowed down accomplishments. At the Alliance, she was tasked with leading the direction of an affinity group comprised of arts administrators, organization higher-ups and interested employees who were focused on expanding diversity and equity within the city’s arts and culture community. Where the large group previously met quarterly but accomplished little, Kalitsi was able break members into five subgroups to focus on one area of their diversity initiative and get more done, as well as research and schedule diversity training for interested employees and organizations. Not only did she accomplish a number of projects from start to finish, but she commanded respect from the members of her organization and the higher-ups she worked with at several of the city’s leading arts and cultural groups.
“Even though I was on co-op, I was really treated like I was part of the team,” Kalitsi said. “Being able to now say that I have had this experience, that I can be a self-starter and it's proven — I can show you what I actually did — that's amazing. I don't think I would ever have gotten this experience anywhere else.”
Kalitsi’s boss, Chief Strategy Officer for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance Michael Norris, said they decided to put a Drexel co-op in the coordinator position because it was new work that would benefit from fresh thinking, and Kalitsi’s background and enthusiasm made her the right candidate for the job.
“It was a good opportunity to have a real project and have real ownership of something that was high-level for us in terms of our mission and strategic agenda,” Norris said. “[Nicole] was really dedicated and resourceful and thoughtful. Once we had a vision and a skeleton work plan, she really ran with it and took ownership and responsibility for it. As a worker, she was fantastic.”
Norris added that Kalitsi also had the diplomacy and tact to take on such a big task as managing the affinity group and making it more effective, among other tasks.
“Our members are not wallflowers,” Norris said matter-of-factly. “They can be opinionated, strong-willed and passionate. You have to be able to manage that and engage people. We had the sense she could do that and she did.”
Kalitsi’s career-defining co-op experience would not have been possible without the support of the Lenfest Foundation and its $3 million gift made in 2017 to support co-ops in the nonprofit and cultural sector. Kalitsi was part of the first cohort of co-op students to benefit from the gift, working through the Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships to ensure her paid co-op.
Kalitsi said without this financial support coordinated by Drexel, should would not have been able to take this co-op that helped crystalize her future goals.
“A lot of people don't see that there is a lot of value in investing in students working with nonprofits… But Drexel does see us as being people who are going to contribute and build up the city in the future,” she said. “Working with nonprofits, you get to actually be working with the people who are affected by the things that you do. … You work every day with people who are from amazing backgrounds and despite the lack of resources, everybody comes in and they're happy to be there and they're all working for this common amazing goal.”
Norris said that it’s a reality for many non-profits in arts and culture, like it is for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, that there is rarely enough funding to take on paid interns and co-ops. But unpaid internships also connect back to the very issue of equity he and Kalitsi were working to solve, so he was very happy that Kalitsi was compensated for her work through the Drexel grant.
“Unpaid internships, even though they are something nonprofits rely on, do actually perpetuate inequity, which continues maintaining the status quo having a less-diverse workforce in the culture sector,” Norris said.
Kalitsi was the Alliance’s first Drexel co-op student, but they do not want her to be their last. They hope to continue assigning the role of diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator to co-op students, and in the meantime the initiatives started by Kalitsi are carried on by various staff members.
Kalitsi is currently completing her final co-op with Mercer in their communications department. You will likely find her next spring taking on a role with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Culture Affairs or with a study abroad or fellowship office at a university — and she’ll be thankful for her Drexel co-op experiences for helping her get there.
“All of this stuff is all interconnected and I'm really cognizant and appreciative of all that,” she said.
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.