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Best of the real world: Co-ops provide cash, experience

By Elizabeth Lepro / Staff Writer

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While many students gain experience at internships, co-ops are where the cash is at. 

Pitt’s co-op program cites a 3.22 average GPA among participants and an average salary $4,000 higher than someone who hadn’t had co-op experience, upon graduation, according to their own numbers. Even with these statistics, Pitt didn’t make the cut when U.S. News and World Report compiled a list last spring of the top 10 schools for co-op and internship programs, which included Northeastern University in Boston and Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Both of these schools offer co-op opportunities to students outside of science, technology, engineering and medicine-related fields. For instance, Drexel University offers positions for English majors in museums, law firms, radio stations and television agencies, to name a few. 

Seth Kahanov, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, co-ops in Maryland for a general contractor. He recalled that his most rewarding experience was when he was asked by the president of the company to design a system to carry volts back and forth in the water.

“It was similar to the work we did in class. It was like a homework problem,” Kahanov said.

After his project’s completion, the president emailed Kahanov with pictures of the raft in use to inform him that his design had worked.

“[Co-ops] let you see how work is applicable to the real world,” Kahanov said.

Because the numbers in the co-op office’s annual report prove engineer co-op participants will make $4,000 more upon graduation after completing three rotations in college, Don Bialostosky, chair of Pitt’s English Department, said he found the prospect “quite exciting,” even though, to his knowledge, there has never been any mention of extending the program to the School of Arts and Sciences.

Caren Dieglio balances a 15-credit course load, an RA position in Forbes Hall, program coordinator duties for a Forbes Hall Living Learning Community and, for the remaining  six months  of the year, she’s employed full-time at a defense corporation through Pitt’s co-op program.

Although “it’s common knowledge in the engineering school that you either co-op or you intern,” according to Dieglio, students studying English or social science-related fields are fixed to the internship track — the University currently does not offer co-ops for students in these fields. 

The idea has been passed on to Pam O’Brien, Undergraduate Placement Committee chair, who has no knowledge of any progress yet. 

What advantages does a cooperative education offer over an internship?

Dieglio, a junior mechanical engineering major, chose the former because she liked the idea of having a secure job for three rotations without having to re-interview or find a new job. 

It probably also doesn’t hurt that she’s making roughly $1,500 every two weeks, or $18 to $19 per hour. Few internships pay this much.

According to a 2012 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, paid college freshman interns make an average of $13.91 hour, which increases to an average hourly wage of $17.57 for college seniors. 

Re-established in 1987 after faltering during the Great Depression, Pitt’s co-op program has expanded to extend to engineering, chemistry and computer science students the opportunity to alternate between a semester-long rotation working full-time with a corporation and a semester of classes. While other universities around the country offer similar co-op programs, Pitt’s doesn’t offer the same opportunities to social science or humanities students.

Dieglio is one person out of the 50 percent of engineering students at Pitt who participate in the cooperative education program, according to Maureen Barcic, Engineering Cooperative Education Program’s director.  

Dieglio just finished her second of three, three-month rotations, working for the the Curtiss-Wright EMD Corporation in Cheswick, Pa., which specializes in defense, nuclear power and generators. 

Dieglio, who has worked one-on-one with experienced mentors and employees, describes with painstaking detail the process of using 3-D color map images and computer software to measure parts during her co-op rotation and challenges, like working with a precise measurement software called Polyworks, which she hasn’t encountered at Pitt. 

This out-of-the-classroom experience is why staff members like Barcic encourage engineering majors to visit the co-op office on the first floor of Benedum.

She recalled an engineering student from years ago who wrote her a letter. In the letter, the student wrote he considering dropping his engineering major but didn’t because of he co-op program. He’s now the vice president of a major corporation, Barcic said. 

Co-ops can help participants develop a sense of pride in applying their classroom knowledge.

For Dieglio, who has three sisters, two of whom still rely on their parents for money, earning money while developing her expertise has helped her — not to mention the fact that Pitt provided her free room and board while working as an RA. 

Humanities students could use this boost.

In 2014, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) released a compilation of data showing the average starting salary for college graduates in the class of 2013. The data showed that humanities and social science majors were still making the least amount of money post-graduation, at $38,045. 

Dieglio, who has a 3.8 GPA, has benefited from her co-op experience more than just monetarily. 

Dieglio said that during an interview for one of her co-ops, the interviewer asked her what someone close to Dieglio would say about her. Dieglio said her sister would describe her as “determined and self disciplined.” 

“You kind of have to be that way, especially to study engineering,” Dieglio said, hesitating slightly before adding, “And do … all this other stuff.”

Editor’s Note: In a previous version of the article, it was stated that Dieglio made $1,500 every week. Dieglio makes $1,500 every two weeks. The article also stated that Dieglio has a 2.8 GPA. Dieglio has a 3.8 GPA. The Pitt News regrets these errors.

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Best of the real world: Co-ops provide cash, experience