Jun 26, 2003

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Arts students should consider co-op program

Having worked with arts students for several years, I have come to the conclusion that there are several factors inhibiting their participation in co-op.
By Paulette Johnston
It might surprise you to learn that arts students majoring in philosophy,
women's studies, sociology, English and other arts programs are working in degree-related positions in co-op. In fact, this summer there are more than 100 arts students working in co-op positions within Canada and internationally. The co-op arts program is slowly starting to catch up to business and computing science - programs where you might expect co-op employers to look for students.

While this is good news, it is not good enough when you consider that arts is the largest faculty on campus. There are currently 4,306 approved faculty of arts majors at Simon Fraser University. With a number like that, arts should have the largest co-op program, yet only 400 of these students are in the co-op program. Compare these numbers to business, which has only 1,630 approved majors but more than 700 co-op students, and it is readily apparent that arts students have not embraced co-op to the same extent.

What's the problem? In arts co-op we have devoted considerable time since the program's 1987 inception to trying to figure this out. After all, we reason, arts students more than any other might be nervous about their future after graduation. Any arts student can tell you about explaining to a concerned relative why they are studying subjects like anthropology, linguistics and psychology. The career path of an arts student is often not an obvious one, and arts students often find it a challenge to picture what they will do with their degree.

The biggest challenge arts student face is in recognizing what their skills are. As a former arts major myself, I know that as my undergraduate degree progressed I became more and more cognizant of what I did not know, while friends in applied degree programs seemed to become more confident as they approached graduation. It is not uncommon to interview an arts student for entrance into the co-op program to hear them say, “I have no skills really, I'm just an arts major.”

In facing this challenge, one would think that arts students would be flocking to co-op, which provides paid work semesters in an educational add-on program completed as part of an undergraduate or graduate degree. Having worked with arts students for several years, I have come to the conclusion that there are several factors inhibiting their participation in co-op.

We demand a lot from students when we make the co-op option available to them. They are already juggling courses, assignments, grades anxiety, family responsibilities, and part-time jobs. Adding co-op to this mix means students then need to factor in resume and cover letter preparation, pre-interview research, interviews and all the stresses inherent in a job search. Not all students feel they can manage to take this on.

Entering co-op also means that students need to grapple with the whole “what am I going to do with my degree?” issue early in their academic program. Co-op work terms are designed to be completed on an alternating basis with study semesters in order to bring classroom learning to the workplace and vice-versa. Co-op students are recruited from the moment they enter SFU and even before, at high school and college presentations. For arts students, this presents a particular dilemma as they typically tend to want to think about their careers only when graduation approaches. Co-op forces a change in this pattern.

Students sometimes balk at the thought of adding more time to their undergraduate or graduate degrees, particularly now with rising tuition fees and living costs. While students who complete co-op are quick to tell us that the extra time was worth it because of what they gained - new skills, networking, career decisions and job offers - it can be a tough sell to a student who is daunted by embarking on a degree program that already seems long.

Finally, the factor that hinders arts students most of all is lack of confidence. This can be articulated by students in several ways. The student who says, “I hear co-op jobs aren't any good,” may really be saying, “I'm not sure I can do this so I won't try.” Positions in co-op are posted with descriptions of the job, and these sometimes look intimidating. We constantly reassure students that they are not expected to do everything on the description on their first day on the job. For a student who is unsure of their knowledge and the transferability of the skills they gain from critical thinking, analysis, writing, discussion of complicated concepts, classroom presentations, group projects and meeting deadlines, avoidance of a program like co-op might seem to them a wise choice. Like joining the chess club in high school, co-op can be regarded as something that only select students with sky-high grades undertake.

In arts co-op, we are certainly trying to change that image. We want all arts students to consider adding co-op to their academic program so that they can derive the benefits of a combined degree. We want to make as many opportunities as possible available to SFU arts students, and offer them the chance to explore career options they might never have considered.

Co-op is an ideal way to experience the versatility of an arts degree. Arts co-op students apply their academic studies to fields as diverse as policy analysis, communications, teaching, management, technical, events coordination, fundraising, healthcare, politics, translation, community outreach, social services, marketing, legal education, theatre, law enforcement, research, finance, project management, and media - just to name a few.

In a survey conducted by arts co-op completed in December 2000, there was ample evidence indicating that participation in co-op has immediate effects. Sixty-eight per cent of the respondents reported that at least one of their jobs after graduation was with a former co-op employer or a networking contact established while in a co-op position. The majority said they found degree-related employment before completing their degree and more than 70 per cent indicated they began their job search before they completed their studies.

The median gross salary range for arts co-op students graduating between 1992 and 2000 was more than $40,000 a year.

Many arts co-op students pursue some form of graduate education. Those who are unsure about pursuing graduate work often make their decision after observing opportunities in the work world and after speaking with co-op supervisors who have become their mentors. About 25 per cent of arts co-op students who return to university earn a master's degree, seven per cent a PhD and 15 per cent return for professional certificate programs. Hopefully, as more students complete the arts co-op program and return to Simon Fraser University as co-op employers, current students will see that they have nothing to lose by participating in co-op, and everything to gain.

Paulette Johnston is an arts graduate of Simon Fraser University in English, women's studies and communication, and has worked with co-op students since 1986. She is the elected staff representative on the university's board of governors.

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