How I Made the Most of my International Co-op Position in the Most Expensive City in the World

How I Made the Most of my International Co-op Position in the Most Expensive City in the World

By: Yasmin Khalili
  2684 reads

My first two terms working as a Clinical Intern in a chronic pain clinic in Vancouver, BC were very much planned. I enrolled into the co-op course, waltzed through the resume and interview workshops, and landed a great position right in my hometown. My third term of co-op however, much like a third child, was not planned at all.

I took part in the Study Abroad program over the Summer 2018 semester at the University of California, Berkeley.  It was through this program that I was presented with the opportunity of working with the American Internship Council (AIC) on possibly obtaining an international co-op position in San Francisco, California, for the Fall 2018 semester. The more I looked into the opportunity I not only realized the work that would need to be done to ensure this possibility, but, also how this may be my only chance to ever work in California while a student.

I responded to SFU’s International Co-op Advisor with an enthusiastic “yes!”.  From there, I began the four-month journey of making this dream a possibility. I was the first student from SFU to work with AIC, and was told from the get-go that the process may be rocky. I was also the so-called student “guinea pig”, because I was establishing this opportunity for future students, should it work well with me.

Through this process I learned how different the American “Internship” culture is from the Canadian “Co-operative Education”. Two of the most striking differences were: 1. You (the student) do not apply for jobs on your own, instead AIC gives your resume and application to companies and organizations that they believe will be the best fit for you. This takes away most of the work from students and once your resume is accepted you are left waiting to hear back about interviews, not knowing really who your resume is going to and; 2. Many positions (especially those that are not in technology) are unpaid. What!

I was offered several interviews for internship positions in San Francisco, and from those who accepted me post interview I began the process of negotiating for a stipend. Of those places, one organization accepted my negotiation and the following day, I signed my contract and was set to go. I had never previously negotiated for anything, so that in itself was a great learning opportunity. My rational for a stipend in a position in which there normally isn’t one was simply to cover the costs of my living in San Francisco. Additionally, for a position to qualify to be a part of the SFU Co-op program the employer in Canada needs to provide at least minimum wage, if the Co-op position is international this requirement is changed to the employer providing the student with some sort of compensation – whether it be providing accommodation, covering their travel costs, or, in my case, providing a stipend to cover the costs of living.

Looking back, I certainly do wish I had negotiated for a higher stipend, however, at the time I was ecstatic to be given one at all. My International Co-op Advisor at SFU was one of my main pillars of support through the application, and especially the negotiation, process for my internship placement in San Francisco.

When in San Francisco, do as the San Franciscan’s do

In what seemed like an incredible combination of hard work and luck, I secured housing, was awarded the Global Travel Grant to cover my flight costs, obtained the International Co-operative Education award, and my J-1 visa arrived about 2 days before my flight to California. What a stressful, yet exhilarating week!

The J-1 visa (commonly known as the “internship visa”) that the USA gives to students who wish to work short term is formerly known as a “cultural visa”. This distinction from a work visa was important to me, as it signified that I was not just going to the USA to work, but to experience the culture and environment as well.

During my time in San Francisco, I not only made it a priority for myself to excel in my place of work, but to also really step out of my comfort zone and put myself out there, and experience all that the Bay Area had to offer. I began regularly attending tech conferences in the Financial District in San Francisco at an educational organization called General Assembly, reconnected with the Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC) where I previously worked as a Health Worker during my time studying abroad at University of California, Berkeley, this time joining as a volunteer as a Board of Directors member for the Berkeley Student Cooperative Alumni Association (BSCAA), and took part in an outdoor adventures club called Urban Diversion Adventures where I met some of the most incredible people I’d ever crossed paths with.

With all these pieces coming together, I built a schedule that started at 8:00 a.m. everymorning and ended at 11:00 p.m. every night, 7 days a week. I loved every minute of it … even the challenging parts! It is true when they say that time moves quickly when you are having a good time because my 4 months as an intern went by in the blink of an eye. Before I knew it, it was January 2019 and I had found myself back within the concrete walls of SFU Burnaby before I had the chance to re-acclimatize to the cool, crisp air of British Columbia.

The Internship

For my internship position I worked as an Operations and Marketing Intern at Alliance for  Smiles; a non-profit founded in San Francisco in 2004. Alliance for Smiles mandate is to operate on children born with cleft lip and palates in underserved areas of the world, free of charge. The organization was quite small, composed of only about 5 staff who regularly worked in the office, and funded almost entirely by Rotary Clubs in San Francisco and internationally. My tasks included assisting in the logistics of planning the international missions to countries such as Myanmar, Guatemala, and China as well as leading fundraising events and spearheading projects in the office.

The City

The city of San Francisco (SF) was really unlike any city I had lived in before. In a way, it was similar to downtown Vancouver, but with twenty times the population, over a larger area, minus the rain, double the traffic, and Ubers and Lyfts on every corner! During my time there I lived in a large 6-bedroom 4-bathroom loft in the Potrero Hill district of San Francisco with 5 other young working professionals and a husky dog with heterochromia named Luna.

The area I lived in was a short $5 uber to downtown San Francisco; a district commonly known as SoMa (south of market), a popular place for shopping, eating, and soaking in the city life. Although the sun would set around 5:30 pm, the city was always thriving and bursting with energy. Being out late never really felt “late”, until you had to wake up early the following morning!


In addition to my internship I also began volunteering as a Board of Directors member for the Berkeley Student Cooperative Alumni Association (BSCAA). The BSCAA works in union with the BSC to provide affordable housing for UC Berkeley students and those attending colleges in the nearby areas. During my time as a study abroad student at UC Berkeley I lived in a bright yellow co-ed former fraternity house on Frat Row a 3-minute walk from campus called "Wolf Haus" with 29 other students. The living situation was exciting and vibrant, with many different people living under one roof. In the house, everyone cooked their own daily meals, but we usually had dinner together and hosted weekly events. I was elected as the management position of Health Worker and lead meetings with the other elected managers in the house to plan and discuss how to keep the house running smoothly.

As part of the BSCAA, we had meetings to discuss how to keep the prices for the houses low, implemented a bail program for students affiliated with the BSC who faced deportation, and collaborated on the improvement of student leadership roles within the organization. Although I am back in Canada now, I am still a part of the BSCAA and join their meetings virtually!


After I was able to find my bearings, had an American phone number and set up an American bank account, I made a goal for myself to explore as much of the city as I could with the little time I had. Exploring an area, you are unfamiliar with alone is difficult, so I knew I had to take it a step further if I wanted to make the most of my trip. About a month into my endeavor in San Francisco I joined an outdoor adventure club called Urban Diversion, and it was here that I made some of my most memorable memories in the Bay Area. Through the club, I went on numerous hikes in Bernal Heights and Sausalito,went on two cabin trips to Lake Tahoe in northern California and Nevada, learned how to make a Singapore Sling in a bartending class, went ice skating at Union Square and Civic center, escaped from an escape room, danced at bonfires by the beach, learned how to play poker, took part in SantaCon, “snuck” into a Speakeasy, celebrated Friendsgiving, attended countless happy hours, shared endless laughs, and many more!

Final Thoughts

I am eternally grateful that I took the jump to take part in the international co-op placement in San Francisco. I couldn’t have done it without the support of the SFU Health Sciences and International Co-operative Education staff and those down south at the American Internship Council answering my many questions along the way. I now feel confident enough in myself to plan a solo backpacking trip across South America alone, whereas before I hadn’t even so much as booked a plane ticket for myself. The position did not come without hardships, but every one of those experiences taught me how to better prepare myself for adverse situations in the future. If you are on the fence about taking part in an international co-op placement, I confidently say: take the plunge. You won’t regret it!

Beyond the Article 

  • Want to learn about opportunities like Yasmin's? Visit the International Co-op homepage.

  • Dreaming of a sunny summer co-op in Silicon Valley? Ryan shares how he landed a co-op at Tesla

  • Worried about your first job? Tyler shares how to be a successful 'newbie' 

Posted on March 14, 2019