The Long Way Around: How Co-op Made My Academic Detour Worthwhile

The Long Way Around: How Co-op Made My Academic Detour Worthwhile

By: Brett Erickson
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In high school, strong grades in the Sciences, particularly Biology, was all the justification a 17-year-old needed for selecting a university program. Up to this point, I thoroughly enjoyed a period of ignorant bliss – uncaring about job prospects, salaries, RRSPs. Soon, reality would crash down on me, and in the following years, co-op would help repair the damage.

I started at SFU in 2009 with the Faculty of Science, majoring in Microbiology and Biochemistry. As the months passed by, feelings of uncertainty and discontent began to manifest as I learned more about this new post-secondary life, what sort of careers lay ahead, and inevitably, what the working conditions of those careers would be like. In all likelihood, I would spend my future working in labs; the only work experience I had at this point was on farms and at a food processing plant as a mechanic assistant – a far different environment than, say, a medical laboratory.

One afternoon while performing Gel Electrophoresis, I thought to myself, “Is this really what you want to do for the rest of your life?” – I realized I was two years into a program that would lead me to a career I would resent. It was difficult to process, because despite my desire to change paths, I had no alternative in mind. The thought of abandoning all my progress up to that point and potentially starting from scratch was tough to swallow.

In Fall of 2011, I transferred to the School of Engineering Science at SFU and immediately fell in love with the program. My peers were people I could easily relate to, the subjects were engaging and interesting on a personal level. Yet still, I felt I could do better – I wanted to graduate and get on with my career, but I also wanted that career to make me happy. A year later, I declared my major as Mechatronics Systems Engineering, after transferring yet again, to align my studies with topics more suited to my industrial/mechanical experience and aptitude.

By this point, I was mentally worn down. Three years of my life and all the time, hard work, and money that accompanied it had, in my eyes, been wasted. Some classmates would ask me about my age and why I was not graduating soon. Others, just beginning their undergraduate degree, judged me for my age – perhaps they thought I was someone incapable of making good life decisions; maybe they thought I wasn’t cut out for this. Until my luck changed, I shared these feelings.

My first co-op placement was hard won and I was dreading the search for my second. A month passed by without so much as a nibble, that is, until I received an email asking me to sign up for an interview on Symplicity for a company called Tolko Industries. I reflected on the job description: I would get to move to a new city, have an active work environment, work on a variety of projects and expand my Control Systems knowledge. It sounded like a great fit.

The interview took place in the morning, a time of the day that has never been kind to me. I bought a second alarm clock the night before; a battery powered one, just in case the power went out that night while I was asleep. In total, I had two alarm clocks in my room as well as my phone and somehow still overslept. I leapt out of bed with only 15 minutes to spare, but thankfully the interview was to be conducted over Skype. There was not enough time to get completely ready, so I had to prioritize. There I sat, in my living room: a trimmed beard, nicely combed hair, wearing a dress shirt and blazer, with sweatpants and Chewbacca slippers, desperately hoping I wouldn’t have to stand-up during the interview.

Despite the job posting offering a four or eight-month placement, they strongly preferred someone willing to work at least eight months. Taking an eight-month placement would require me to miss my third year summer term courses and delay my graduation by another year. Once again, I was faced with a choice that could lead to the further postponement of my graduation. A few days later, I received an offer from Tolko for an eight-month position and accepted.

Now, I’m back in school after having worked 16 months with Tolko. Since I began work in January of 2015, I have grown as a son, as a brother, as a friend, and as an Engineer. On a personal level, the opportunity afforded me some sorely needed lessons in appreciating my family and friends. Moving away from home, to cities far from the Lower Mainland, where you have no affiliations or acquaintances of any kind is a humbling experience. I also learnt how to use a washing machine (my mom was so proud and relieved).

On a professional level, I have never been more confident in myself and my abilities as a future Engineer. A year ago, I was a student who had never heard of a Variable Frequency Drive (VFD), had no experience with Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC) or Machine Vision, and my experience with Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) was limited. Now, not only can I tell you what a VFD is, I can size one, install one, wire one, program one, back one up, and trouble-shoot one. PLC programming is second-nature, I’ve handled half a dozen Machine Vision projects, and I was able to work, live, and travel all over BC and Alberta.

By the time I graduate, I will have spent two years studying Microbiology and Biochemistry, 20 months in co-op, and four years as an Engineering student, and that’s okay with me. While I sometimes wish I had found this path earlier, it is only because I took my time that I found this path at all. My advice: don’t tie your education to an arbitrary timeline if it involves willful ignorance of a better path, such as a life-altering co-op opportunity. You’ll be happier in the end for it. 

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Posted on August 24, 2016