Dr. Nancy Johnston is currently the Executive Director, Student Affairs at Simon Fraser University.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

1.      When did you begin your career in co-op and in what capacity?

I began my career in co-op in 1977 as a first-year co-op student at the University of Waterloo in kinesiology. It was one of the few programs in existence in Canada at the time and I went specifically for co-op and Kinesiology. I did six work terms there and one of my work terms brought me out to Simon Fraser, which is the only other university offering kinesiology at the time. I did two co-op work terms out here and got employed back by one of them after I graduated from Waterloo. Then I immediately began to figure out (I was with the government at the time) how we could hire co-op students. So I connected back with the SFU program in the capacity of the employer. And then a position came open during the first couple of years I was hiring students for a coordinator in Math and Computing and Kinesiology (all in Applied Sciences at the time), so I started as a full-time coordinator here in 1987.

2.      What brought you to seek a career in co-op?

A bit happenstance, but I was always interested in continuing education.

3.      What are your own personal considerations as to the value of co-op education?

I have had multiple lenses – I’ve been a co-op student (when that was not a popular thing to do); I’ve been a co-op administrator; I’ve been a co-op director of large multi-faceted program; I’ve been an employer. So I feel like I’ve touched every major stakeholder. And I’m also a parent of a graduate from an applied program – so I’m a major fan of experiential learning and work-integrated, in particular, where it can lead you to understand different career opportunities, regardless of whatever particular academic choices you make.

I feel that I have a good sense of co-op from all the different perspectives and from every one of them I just see the value added to your experience as an employer, value added to your business. At an institutional level, particularly research intensive, the ability to provide students with research-intensive learning environments complemented by more applied work environments is a wonderful thing for the institution in my mind and for the learner.

From a student’s vantage point, I know that the learning is different: that it is impactful, and that it helps students make decisions early on – academic, non-academic, co-curricular, work oriented – that they wouldn’t have been able to make without that experience. It allows people to experience things – mind, body, soul – in a very fully immersive environment and as an educator now, I now fully understand the kind of pedagogical or educative value of experiential programming, some of which, like co-op is work-integrated, others of which are not. So I’m a huge fan on multiple levels.

4.      As a co-op practitioner, what do you consider some of your biggest success over the years and why?

It has been a while since I’ve been a practitioner in co-op, but probably the legacy of when I made the conscious decision as the director to grow the program in quality rather than quantity. I decided to define SFU in terms of quality of curriculum development and I think we did that. I think we are a leader known across the world for that work. At the time, Bridging Online was pretty forward thinking. It was one of the first online prep programs in the world for work-integrated learning.

And I think this notion of thinking of ourselves as co-op educators, more than co-op coordinators or placement-people was a big move, and now a number of places have followed that and added to that body of work tremendously. I think that was one of my bigger impacts: to fully come to understand this as a model of education as opposed to an extension of a career centre. Emphasising the learning value of the proposition, not just the economic impact-value of job development and job transition (which is important too).

Many of our students are in the eighteen to twenty-something range. This is a big time in the developmental piece when people are trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, how work is going to fit in their lives, their identity. It is a really privileged part of someone’s lives to enter into and to be able to help inform. All of that developmental work is a bigger deal, or as big of a deal, as the work-integrated part that we get to witness. They learn big things about themselves. The affordance is more than just the work-integrated and the pedagogical; it’s really around development.

5.      As a co-op practitioner what have been some of your biggest challenges and how did you address them?

I never thought I really had challenges, in the sense of problems. I pretty much see everything as an opportunity and so my biggest challenge is probably deciding which opportunity to take advantage of and when. There are so many things you can do as a co-op practitioner. You have the luxury of straddling an educator’s world, a businessperson’s world, a counsellor’s world, and you can develop yourself in any of those directions.

6.      In reflecting back from when you began your career in co-op, is there any advice you could give those commencing their co-op career as to priorities and goals?

Take advantage, for the most part, that you are in the public system and you have the luxury of doing the right thing and not just the thing that makes financial sense. Yes, we have financial pressures, of course, we are all working for the most part within fixed financial envelopes. But, you also don’t have the pressure that someone in the private sector does of what we do making money. The public good, because you are in a public sector environment, so thinking of the public – what is the nature of the public good that you want to do? Is it on the education side, is it on the economic impact side, what is it? What good do you want to do, and then take advantage of it.

Opportunities for your own professional development are huge. Do you want to become a better job developer? Take courses in selling and marketing, and get your MBA if you don’t have it already, and do it within the context of work-integrated learning and add to your own personal work, add to that profession, add to that practice, add to that model and bring it and share it. It’s really a relatively small group of us operating at a provincial and national level there so connect. Find a little place to grow the model in a way that is research and evidence based. Why? Because you can and then hook-up to communities bigger than yourself, bigger than Kinesiology Co-op or SFU Co-op, bigger than B.C. co-op or Canadian co-op, join the world association of co-op. You will have such a fulfilling career and you will be able to understand things on such a different scale. They will have similar observations to you, we are dealing with people and learning and governments and workplaces and there are lots of shared things to be learned.

7.      What are your thoughts as to how co-op has evolved over the years and where do you think it is headed for the future?

The co-op model in Canada under the CAFCE accreditation has been fairly rigidly defined since CAFCE’s inception. Just recently, some changes were made to the accreditation committee around graduate co-op. That is an example of the kind of flexibility that the model has to take in Canada. But we can’t go so flexible as to get a hodgepodge of everything’s co-op. So it’s a double-edged sword to having a nice clear accreditation which most institutions aspire to. When we say co-op in Canada, there’s a general sense that it means paid, that it means 30% of the time in the workplace, its monitored institutionally, there’s a reflective component, all those sorts of things that we know are attributes of high impact work-integrated learning programs.

It’s nice in Canada that we have a fairly singular model. The problem comes if no one wants to revisit that model as work-integrated programs proliferate, and they don’t all look like a Co-op. Why? Because not everyone can afford co-op, it’s one of the more expensive models but it is also one that has the most value on certain outcomes. But it’s not for everybody, it’s not for every industry. There are certificates, baccalaureate, PBD, diploma, whatever it is that you’re going over. Other models have apprenticeship models and so on. So I think co-op and at least the co-op association provincially and nationally, have to recognise that this is going to grow. We can hold on to this tight little notion of what co-op is and see what happens or we can open the tent a little bit more and let in some models, that by and large, have about 80% of co-op.

I would like to think that CAFCE is going that way, the community is going that way, even here at SFU we are a work-integrated learning department. We currently mostly do co-op but we’re creating a space that there might be other work-integrated learning programs that would benefit from a lot of the stuff we have done in co-op, some elements of curriculum, some elements of employment workshops, but they would operate off a slightly different model because that’s what works best for those outcomes and industries. I hope we have some flexibility but all the while containing some clear, shared understandings about what we are, model A vs model B vs model C etc. A high impact service learning model vs a high impact co-op model. Expand the tent and try to understand work-integrated learning as a broader umbrella. Working out the commonalities and differences between service learning and co-op.

Thanks for participating, Nancy!