As a teacher and adviser to hundreds of NC State students, NC State director of undergraduate studies in chemical and biomolecular engineering Lisa Bullard knows a thing or two about the university's Cooperative Education Program and the positive impact it has on her students.
"From an advisor's perspective, Co-op students seem to gain confidence and have a much better feel for where they want to go after graduation," Bullard said. "That confidence enables them to perform at a higher level and with a higher level of professionalism."
Since she regularly teaches the university's introductory chemical engineering class as well as the senior project class, Bullard has the unique perspective to see how Co-op students mature during their time in the program.
"Typically, the students who go out and do a Co-op rotation after their first or second class in the major come back really pumped up and with a realization of what chemical engineering really is, because they've done it," she said. "They're excited about the major because they know what they can do with it and they know they can be successful in the engineering workplace."
While some students' Co-op rotations strengthen their decision to focus on a specific area of chemical engineering, the hands-on exposure they receive in the field may lead them to change their focus and concentration once they return to campus.
"In some cases, they might have gone to a Co-op position thinking that they wanted to do a particular thing, and after they had three different rotations they came out with a completely different mindset," Bullard said "Co-op students are more confident of entering the workplace because they've had that exposure, and they have hopefully confirmed where in engineering they will enjoy working."
About 15 percent of chemical engineering students participate in the Co-op program, and those students supporting themselves as they attend NC State may find that in some cases, Co-op positions offer higher salaries than other part-time or internship work, Bullard said.
"Financially, Co-op pays much better because the stipend increases with each successive work rotation," she said. "The salary for our average student's first rotation was $2,910, and then it goes up from there."
Money aside, the opportunity to get real-world experience in your field while attending college will prove invaluable when it's time to find a full-time gig.
"I encourage students to consider Co-op, and I really feel that it's their best option to obtain relevant work experience," Bullard said. "Their rotation is their full-time focus, as opposed to the student who might be working part-time at a local restaurant for 20 or 30 hours a week, not getting work experience in their major, taking away from their studies and being more of a distraction than a help."
The difference, Bullard said, is most noticeable as she reviews students' efforts in her senior project class.
"Typically, the students who have Co-op'd are very effective in that class because they've been in the work environment and know what it's like to get a large project, come up with a project plan or possibly even manage people working on a project," she said. "My observation is that they approach the project very professionally at a higher level of confidence or competence than students who have not worked in industry."