This article was written by Lindsey Sampson, a 3rd year international affairs student at NU as a regular student contributor for The Works.
Co-op is a unique opportunity that allows you to explore potential career paths, network with professionals at every level, and grow in ways you didn’t think possible. But, real talk time: sometimes learning and expanding your boundaries is hard. Here are a few of the lessons I learned from my first co-op.
1. How to be a real person: For the first month of co-op, I woke up with just enough time to get dressed, scraped myself off of my desk at 5pm and sludged home on the T. Eight
hours of solid productivity five days a week was exhausting – I never made plans on weekdays except to cook pasta, watch reruns of So You Think You Can Dance, and run into bed. The 40-hour workweek takes some getting used to, but by the end of my first co-op cycle, I was going for morning runs and making dinner plans on Tuesdays like I was somebody. Experience with a real work schedule is such a valuable learning opportunity.
Co-Op Tip: Don’t rush into making tons of plans your first week – you don’t want to get burned out. Take time to figure yourself out and establish a schedule.
2. How to make yourself valuable: It’s hard to make a real, lasting impact when you work two days a week and people keep calling you “intern.” Spending six months at one company during co-op allows you to fully immerse yourself in a department or a group. You find your place and start to learn more about your strengths based on your contributions. I didn’t know creativity and design were strengths I had until I worked on a project creating posters for one of our large events. It takes some time to establish yourself as a valuable member of a team, and working so closely with my department for six months allowed me that experience.
Co-Op Tip: Speak up! Making your voice heard will allow you to make a deeper impression on your employers. Respond to group emails , get involved in meetings, take on leadership roles – don’t just float around in the back unnoticed.
3. Uncommon common knowledge in the workplace: My first week of co-op, I drafted an email proposal to a caterer and re-read it fifty times to make sure it was professional. Invaluable office skills, like being able to write a professional email, fielding phone calls from difficult customers, and learning the ins and outs of client relations, are skills that can only be acquired on the job. Having these skills early sets you apart from other applicants when the time comes to apply for jobs.
Co-Op Tip: You will learn a ton your first week on co-op, so take notes on everything. This will allow you to more fully absorb facts and processes. If you’re feeling wild, combine your notes into a training binder or portfolio for the next co-op because you’re just that kind of thoughtful.
4. Handling different management styles: In the real world, having three six-month jobs in for years is flaky. In college, it’s co-op. Over the course of your four or five years at Northeastern, co-op will likely expose you to several different leadership and management styles, allowing you to be a better leader. Becoming a leader is less like growing a tree and more like building a bird’s nest – constructing a leadership style means collecting diverse lessons and habits from those around you.
Co-Op Tip: Pick up habits from your employers as you go – if something was helpful for you, chances are good that it will be helpful for someone else down the road. If you notice something meaningful about your boss’ communication style or organizational methods, try it out for yourself.
5. How to establish a network: I still get emails and updates from co-workers at my previous co-op. Co-op gives you several opportunities to establish strong relationships with professionals in your field. Don’t end co-op without establishing at least one or two strong professional connections. Just being able to hear about experiences firsthand from other professionals will help you gain valuable insight into your own career.
Co-Op Tip: Take the time to grab lunch or coffee with your managers and co-workers. Ask them questions you have about education, career paths, work, life – anything you want to know. They usually want to help, so let them! If you communicate your career goals, they will be better positioned to help you reach those goals.
Most importantly, take full advantage of co-op. Take the time to learn everything you can while on co-op. Talk to everyone, explore new things, and take on projects outside of your comfort zone. Co-op is an amazing opportunity, so it’s time to grab that bull by the metaphorical horns and get to work.
Lindsey Sampson is a middler International Affairs major with minors in Social Entrepreneurship and Writing. She enjoys writing about Millennials in the workplace and social media as a marketing tool. Follow her blog here.