Making the Most out of your Co-op Experience

A co-op program or internship can be one of the most rewarding experiences throughout your undergraduate education.  There’s so much you can learn about the professional world in just those few months, if you approach the opportunity with the right blend of enthusiasm and interest.

Perhaps you have been told that you’ll need to complete a co-op program or internship in order to graduate. Or maybe you just know it is something you should do to kick-off your career.  Or possibly you are testing the waters in an area you want to learn more about.  Regardless of your reasons, you did what you had to do to get yourself to this point, studied hard, applied yourself, and finally landed a co-op position with a firm. Now what? Anxiety may be a little high, your emotions are probably running wild, and suddenly every equation you once remembered may be abruptly erased from your memory. Take a deep breath – this is all normal!

Your mentors, co-workers, and project managers were once undergraduate students, studying for exams and applying for co-op positions too. And now, they manage and work on a team with other like-minded individuals.

To help you as you begin your co-op journey, or if you are currently working as a co-op, we asked our project managers and a second-year co-op at Green, Mara Burke, for some of their best advice-just for you!

Tip 1: Don’t be Afraid to Ask “Why?” 

Erik Atkins, Green’s Transportation Design Group Leader, says “Don’t be afraid to ask questions until you’re sure that you understand, specifically “why?”. The answer to that question will help you understand, more deeply what your team is doing and why the task you have been given is important.”

Co-op programs are designed to be a hands-on learning experience, beyond studying a textbook, and it’s completely fine if you don’t understand something right off the bat. You’re not expected to know everything, and if you did, you probably wouldn’t need this co-op experience. Even highly experienced project managers don’t know everything! Use this experience as a chance to ask questions, build confidence in your abilities, and learn from your peers.

Tip 2: Take Initiative When the Opportunity Arises

Adel Shahin, Senior Vice President at Green says: “Do your best to take initiative when the opportunity arises.” In other words, be the first one to step up to the plate. “If you notice that a project or task that you are working on, or even your daily work-life can be improved, come up with goals, and a step-by-step action plan. Get uncomfortable, speak up, and share this with someone in the office that can help you make these changes. By trying to help improve your workplace your co-workers will see you as someone who is helpful, proactive, and can compose creative solutions when it comes to projects, as well as office culture. You will be seen as an observant co-op student who is able to quickly adapt to the office environment.”

You were chosen for your co-op position because the company already believes that you will be a good fit for the team. Your enthusiasm and intelligence probably contributed to getting you here. If you have an idea that you think is worth sharing, don’t be afraid to share it! This opportunity extends beyond working as an engineer. If the company you are working for has social gatherings, committees, or other opportunities to get involved, take every chance that arises and participate. Connecting with other co-workers in a fun out-of-office environment and learning about the company’s culture can spark new ideas and ways of thinking, which will allow you to contribute more to your team. Your idea may even provide new solutions that were not thought of before.

Tip 3: Again, Don’t be Afraid to Ask Questions

Are you sensing a theme here? Paul Milewski, a Transportation Design Project Manager says “Never be afraid to ask a question because you’re afraid that the answer is obvious. Your question may help uncover a flawed design or open the door for asking bigger questions!” Your curiosity could lead to finding the missing puzzle piece, or fixing an unnoticed error, leading to a better project solution. Always keep that in mind.

Positive outcomes often arise from asking questions, and some of the greatest innovative designs came from those who questioned the norm. Don’t shy back!

Paul also advises “Don’t worry about not knowing things off the top of your head. The important thing is knowing where to find the information you need. For example, know where the reference manuals are in your office and, who the right people are to ask questions.”

When you start your co-op or internship, keep a list of the people you meet. If you have their names and positions noted down, you can use this as a reference tool that will help you determine who to ask when you have a specific question. Manuals are also a great tool to double check something or to find an unanswered question. Stay organized in knowing what you can use as a resource.

Tip 4: Don’t Underestimate Yourself 

Wing Wong, our Transportation Planning Group Leader advises: “Don’t be afraid to express your ideas if you have noticed a better way of doing something. Don’t underestimate how much value you, as a co-op, can contribute to a team.”

While you can learn from your team and develop your professional skills, you also have the opportunity to contribute. You’re going to be a part of a team, and you will be encouraged to engage and share your thoughts on various topics. Teams are created to bring ideas, experiences, and unique skills together to make everyone’s work more efficient. Your unique skills in planning, problem-solving, and decision-making may help better serve a project or client. Bring your own distinctive skills to the table, be open to allowing trial and error to occur, and whatever you do, don’t hide behind the curtain. If you have an idea or a comment, again, pitch it! Your team needs your fresh perspective and inquisitive questions to be as successful as possible. You may even be the special touch that the team is missing and could one day fill a permanent position. 

Tip 5: Branch Out 

Mara Burke, an undergraduate student at Villanova University, has officially started her second co-op experience with the Water Resources/Site Group at Green. Mara’s advice is to “Get to know as many people as possible, whether they are in the same or different department as you.” Mara expressed that she has learned so much from her co-workers.

Co-workers are there to help you. Your co-workers have worked in your company for quite some time, and they may know a good technical resource, or equally as important, where to go for the best burger during your lunch break. Get comfortable with your surroundings and use your co-workers as a guide. They could soon become some of your best friends both inside and outside of the office. Plus, you are all on the same team, after all.

Now is your Time

Now is your time to learn and prove to your company what skills and attributes you said you would bring to the table in your interview. Who knows?  This firm may be the one to offer you your first full-time job after your co-op.  Many firms use co-op experiences as an opportunity to evaluate a potential future employee.  You have worked tremendously hard to get to this point. Take it all in. Keep a great, positive attitude. Remember that this is a learning experience, and with an open mind and willingness to grow, you can be assured that you already have what it takes to succeed.

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