The culture of co-op: From the beginning

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Last year alone, 18,300 UW co-op students earned a combined total of $193 million, while gaining work experience in over 63 countries. There is no co-op program in the country as extensive as UW&rsquo;s. Part of the founding lore of UW is that the desire to create a co-op program was one of the reasons for separating from what was then Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, now Wilfrid Laurier University. In fact, when it was founded, the Associate Faculties, shortly to be renamed the University of Waterloo, had a focus on co-operative education and became the first co-op program in Canada. With the program&rsquo;s long and successful history, UW&rsquo;s identity and culture are tied to the beat of co-op&rsquo;s drum.</p>

Imprint sat down with Rocco Fondacaro, director of student and faculty relations in the Centre for the Advancement of Co-operative Education (WatCACE), to discuss how co-op impacts the culture and image of the university.

The success of co-op has differentiated the university from other post-secondary institutions across the country. The university uses co-op as one of the main selling points to prospective students, calling co-op “your competitive advantage” in the admissions viewbooks.

“If you were to go and look at some of the incoming student survey data, you’ll see that students come here for two main reasons: one is co-op and the other is the academic strength [of the] programs,” Fondacaro said. “From that perspective, I would say that co-op is a huge piece of the character and differentiation of the university.”

The nature of the co-op program, with students leaving UW for work terms in other cities, has, and continues to shape campus culture. One of the major aspects that is often mentioned about UW’s culture is the lack of greater community, with students often feeling more connected to their faculty than to UW.

“Co-op plays a part in that because one of the things we emphasize is that the nature of your work experience will be relevant in some way to your field of study,” Fondacaro said. “To that extent, if we’re trying to develop jobs that are tapping into the content or the opportunities that are associated with a particular discipline, it will reinforce and feed that whole notion of students being more aligned in their thinking and their alliance to their own faculty.”

One of the possible solutions Fondacaro discussed to counteract this side effect of co-op is to better identify and understand “cross-disciplinary skills and talents.” This will create intersections between faculties and counteract the fragmentation. 

This will create intersections between faculties and counteract the fragmentation. 

Another challenge is maintaining continuity by keeping students connected while away on a work term in another city.

“When you have a large-scale co-op program like ours where the student goes back and forth all the time and they don’t have that continuity of the university community itself, the rest of the student body, I think that’s hard for the student to maintain a sense of community and identity with the university,” Fondacaro said. “Something like co-op connections, that was [re-] introduced by Feds, is something that’s going to help build that sense of community with co-op students as well.” 

The opportunity to have workplace experience, before graduating, also contributes to a campus culture that is sometimes described as unengaged. Co-op may attract students who are focused on entering the workforce as soon as possible. These students often have very little interest in getting involved beyond their academics and job placements. 

UW was the first co-op program in Canada, and continues to integrate the co-op experience as it grows and creates new programs. 

“I think you’ll find that at Waterloo, because it’s such a big part of our character, that most programs will want to have a co-op element to it,” Fondacaro said. The high demand for the co-op option from incoming students, and demand for new programs to include co-op as an option, will ensure that co-op will continue to play a central role in shaping UW’s identity.

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