Let’s reflect on UWs co-op culture

Graphic by Taynaya Miranda

We are living in an unprecedented time.

With a world in flux, the uncertainty of what is to come can seem daunting and damning to the high-achieving students of Waterloo as they look to a depleted market for opportunities. 

And yet amid the current chaos that exists there is the unique opportunity for pause from the zeal of a typical student schedule to reflect on where we are, and where we are going. 

By now it’s blatantly clear that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a meme – as it was first treated in Western countries in its nascent stages in China – nor is it an ephemeral closure to regular societal programming. 

There is much uncertainty as to when countries will be able to safely reopen and disagreement as to how and when to do so. However, it is clear that regardless of when reopening does occur, the society that emerges from the pandemic will be distinct from the one that preceded it.

Like the First World War, the COVID-19 pandemic is a socio-industrial Fourth Turning that will change how society operates at all levels – a change that will likely be accompanied by a massive recession as the dust settles.

And for students at Waterloo – a school that is distinguished by its unique co-op offering – this is grossly disorienting, disconcerting, and distressing as  the first round of WaterlooWorks begins. 

The situation is not to be taken lightly. 

Many students are seeing their offers rescinded after five years of working towards them, while others are struggling to get their foot in the door through their first internship. 

However, the pandemic also creates a novel opportunity for pause amongst Waterloo students who are perpetually engulfed in the hectic, never-ending bounce between co-op and school. 

Very rarely are students permitted time to genuinely reflect on their co-op experiences in the absence of external pressures imposed by a highly competitive school environment. 

Pressure makes diamonds, but it can also break them. 

Students work relentlessly throughout their academic terms while interviewing for co-op jobs.

Then students work tirelessly through their co-op terms – whether to prove themselves worthy to their current employers, or to those whom they aspire to for work in the future. 

There is little time for students to consider the motivation behind the work they are pursuing, and even when students are granted time to catch their breath and reflect, it’s still while submerged in an environment – whether industrial or academic – angling students in a particular career orientation. 

This combined with the society of instantaneous consumption we live in makes it difficult to duly reflect on where we’ve been, and where we are going. 

Sheltering-in-place is isolating, but it does grant us an avenue to confront ourselves in a vacuum and rigorously interrogate the people we’ve become or are becoming, devoid of any biases and pressures. 

Going into this recessed WaterlooWorks period, if you were to ask a random student on Waterloo’s campus who the most desirable employers were, you’d likely hear similar responses: Facebook, Amazon, Google, and so forth.

But why? These workplaces do boast highly competitive salaries, great workplace perks, and can serve as launchpads for future career success. But they aren’t the be-all and end-all. 

Ironically, if you were to ask random people on the street of a major city the organizations that are the most culturally problematic right now, they’d list the same companies.

The COVID pandemic provides a widespread existential reminder of the gross uncertainty that accompanies life and the brevity of it. 

It distills that which is important, like making sure everyone in your community has food to eat, versus what is excess, like making a Facebook post about it. In addition to granting us time to reflect on ourselves, the pandemic also forces us to reflect on our greater socioeconomic context at large.

As shelter-in-place orders are sustained, and lockdowns continue, students will continue to have ample time to themselves. 

If you can, take it as a blessing. 

Use it as an opportunity to reflect on yourself, your years at UW, and the character that drives your ambitions. 

Engage in a dialogue with yourself. Interrogate. Question yourself, endlessly. And once you’ve come to your conclusions, reflect on the world at large, and how it will look as we attempt to pick-up the pieces after the mess wrought by this awful virus. 

UW boasts some of the brightest students in the nation, among whom I’m immensely proud to study, and many of whom have the capacity to invoke needed innovation amid this time of great difficulty. 

As per an ancient proverb, “when the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills.” But no windmill is built by someone ignorant of the direction in which the wind blows, or where they stand. 


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