Norah McRae is currently the Executive Director of Co-operative Education and Career Services at the University of Victoria.
1. When did you begin your career in co-op and in what capacity?
I began as Co-op Coordinator in the Arts Co-op (as it was called then) at UVic in 1992. This program covered all departments in the Faculties of Humanities and Fine Arts.
2. What brought you to seek a career in co-op?
I was attracted to the program’s goals of connecting what students were learning with the world of work. For Humanities and Fine Arts students this can be a challenge for them to realize all of the terrific capabilities they gain from their programs and then to identify opportunities for their capabilities.
3. What are your own personal considerations as to the value of co-op education?
The value of co-op education lies in allowing students to study what they love and are interested in while providing them with opportunities to successfully apply that learning in a variety of workplaces, integrate the learning they gain while in those workplaces and put it all together towards attaining their own academic, personal and career goals.
4. As a co-op practitioner, what do you consider some of your biggest successes over the years, and why?
My biggest successes while a co-op practitioner would have been in providing a range of suitable workplace opportunities where the employers truly considered themselves as partners in the learning process, mentored our students and allowed them to engage in “experiments safe to fail” as one put it. Seeing how students flourish in these environments and, in many cases, contribute significantly continues to be my greatest source of satisfaction.
5. As a co-op practitioner, what have been some of your biggest challenges, and how did you address them?
Co-op practitioners need to pay attention to the student, employer and institution dimensions in equal measure. Additionally, given the alternating nature of our co-op programs, we usually have students seeking work terms, on work terms and returning from work terms all in the same time period. This takes an ability to span many boundaries and have excellent time management skills.
6. In reflecting back to the start of your career in co-op, what advice about priorities, goals or activities would you give to those commencing their career in co-op?
Firstly, gain some grounding in experiential learning theory. Co-op is an experiential education program and understanding the underlying theory and components of good experiential learning is key to quality programming.
Second, keeping engaged in the industry sector or communities where you hope to place your students is important. Continuous environmental screening, networking and maintaining good relations and understanding of their needs takes regular interaction.
Finally, understand your institution’s goals and how your program supports the strategic vision for the institution broadly and your specific academic units.
7. What are your thoughts as to how co-op has evolved over the years, and where do you think it is headed in the future?
More and more institutions combine co-op with career services. This connection has strengthened the link between co-op and career development. In addition, this has resulted, in some cases, with co-op programs starting to offer a broader menu of work-integrated learning programs. This can include internships and community service learning for example. A complete listing of all forms of Work-integrated learning and education can be found on the ACE website and is a result of a project from the Accountability Council of Co-operative Education. Programs are more intentional, both in terms of sending students abroad and working with a larger number of international students. Increasingly, programs are starting to develop supports and services in a more intentional way for indigenous students. I think the next move for co-op is to examine how our program can support a bigger community-university engagement agenda.
Thanks for your perspectives and insight, Norah!