Engineers play grown-up in the Co-Op Program
College, for the most part, is fun. Washington University students work hard and, of course, play hard as well. Our classes tend to be incredibly interesting and our extracurricular activities, fulfilling. And while schlepping to Whispers at 11 p.m. to cram for a chemistry exam can be a drag, these four years are generally a whirlwind of good times.
As a result, it can be tempting to avoid thoughts of the workforce and becoming a “real person” (lucky pre-meds are perpetual students!); in this economy, howver, it is important that we take time to assess whether our areas of study are going to lead us to satisfying and productive jobs.
For students in the engineering school, incredible opportunities are available through the Engineering Co-Op Program. A co-op allows students, typically juniors, to explore the workforce during the course of their college years so they can gain work experience and understand the tangible aspects of the theories they have learned in class. A co-op is a zero-credit course, but students are paid by their employers, do not have to pay Wash. U. tuition and still maintain full-time student status.
There are some co-ops available in St. Louis, but there are many more spread across the country.
“It’s more of a sacrifice [to travel and give up a semester] than a summer internship, but it’s worth it. It is much more in depth and less competitive than a summer internship,” said Sue Kruessel, coordinator of the Engineering Co-op Program.
Junior Jason Singer, a biomedical engineering major, understands Kruessel’s sentiments quite well. Singer moved to Los Angeles this past semester for a co-op at St. Jude’s Medical. While staying in a resort-like apartment complex complete with a pool, Singer worked with a team to design implantable defibrillators and pacemakers.
“It’s tough [to design] life-saving devices because everything has to be exact. The process has to be perfect,” he said.
Employers recruit out of Wash. U. through the Career Center, which is how Singer networked and interviewed his way into the St. Jude program. Singer believes the experience was extremely beneficial.
“Before the co-op, I was concerned about what it meant to be an engineer, but now that I’ve done it, I feel that Wash. U. students can succeed as engineers,” Singer said.
Kate Wilson, also a junior, began her experience in the field a few weeks ago. Unlike Singer, Wilson opted to stay in St. Louis so that she could continue to pursue her involvement in student groups. Wilson is working for a biomedical company called bioMérieux, which manufactures biomedical equipment machines that detect viruses and bacteria. She will be running tests on these machines and developing new equipment.
“It’s completely different than attending college and classes. It’s nice to not have homework, but at the same time you are at the job location for eight or nine hours a day, and then you have to get up early because that’s how the real world works,” Wilson explained.
Junior Kristin Lee agrees. She is currently stationed in Los Angeles, working to develop implantable technology that saves peoples’ lives when their hearts are not fully functional.
“I work about eight hours a day. At first I thought eight hours would be exhausting, but my supervisor and coworkers are really amazing and friendly, and the day goes by really quickly. Then [I] go home and relax—no homework!”
Despite the value of the Co-Op Program, there are still some who think that taking a break from school is not a good idea, as it can strip students of the motivation to complete such tasks as projects and papers when they do return to school. Kruessel disagrees with these views and pointed out that utilizing a semester to apply one’s knowledge can be a magnified learning adventure.
After all, it’s one thing to study the textbooks and ace an exam and another to play a part in creating life-saving devices.